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Votes

Not Just Transportation

At town meeting, citizens voice concern over more than just transportation issues.

Right now, there is a battle waging between the Senate and the House of Delegates in the Virginia General Assembly, and not surprisingly, it is over money.

"As we're struggling to find resources for transportation, we're also struggling over whether we should be taking general fund money and putting it towards transportation," said state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) at a town hall meeting held at the McLean Community Center on Saturday, Jan. 13. "The Senate thinks that general fund money should be spent for general fund purposes, and right now, the Senate and the House are not in agreement over this… but as I'm listening to what you all are saying – and I've been listening intently – it sounds like general fund issues."

Howell had a point. At the Jan. 13 community meeting, citizens were given the opportunity to stand before their state legislature representatives – Howell, Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34) and Del. Jim Scott (D-53) – and voice their concerns. And just as Howell noted, many of them were not about transportation.

"Like everybody here, I find traffic quite frustrating … but I've been frustrated with all of the politicians saying 'traffic is the issue, traffic is the issue – this is what we have to solve,'" said local resident Elizabeth Costle. "I think traffic is a symptom of other problems … Virginia seems to want to avoid anything like comprehensive planning."

Costle urged her representatives to push for smart growth and affordable housing, so teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public service employees can live in the communities where they work.

"Fairfax County is going to grow," said Costle. "I think that the frustration that people feel is the quality of life that building willy-nilly has allowed to happen."

CONCERN ABOUT voting and ballot counting procedures was an issue brought up by several citizen speakers. Speaking on behalf of the non-partisan organization New Era for Virginia, Vienna resident Sharon Henderson urged the representatives to support S.H. 916, a bill that enforces voting registration drives to return materials, and S.H. 920, the so-called "No Excuses" bill that would allow voters to do in-person absentee voting, prior to the election.

"Once again, we had a critical election in Virginia… just 9,000 votes separated the two contenders," said Henderson. "Sen. [George] Allen conceded just 16 hours after the election, and I'm sure that the reason why he did this is because there is no way to do a real re-count."

Reston resident Michael Greelis spoke on behalf of Verified Voting, an organization in favor of a paper record of every vote, as well as a way for voters to verify their vote on paper before they cast their ballot.

"In Virginia there is no way to watch your vote being counted because we have touch screens," said Greelis. "We are now in the era of phantom elections… my personal preference would be to have counted paper ballots."

Greelis noted that in a recent Verified Voter survey, 92 percent of respondents said they would like to watch their votes being counted.

"It's not some fringe conspiracy movement," he said.

ANOTHER ISSUE that was raised by several citizens was concern about how the state treats its mentally disabled residents.

"We are concerned about building opportunities for people with developmental disabilities," said Nancy Mercer, executive director of Arc of Northern Virginia. "What do people with disabilities want? They want the same things that everybody else wants – a home, a job and a community."

Mercer urged her representatives to support a bill that would provide a 20 percent differential in all reimbursement rates, as there are currently no differentials for residential, employment and day support services.

"It's not just building a ramp, and it's not just making a door wider," said Mercer.

Susan Ripley, a resident of Fairfax City, also urged the representatives to support the 20 percent differential. Ripley said her 31-year-old son is mentally retarded, legally blind and has cerebral palsy. Despite these setbacks, he holds two jobs, and has been promoted twice.

"We've been trying to find a home for him because he's sick and tired of living with old people, but we can't find the right environment for him," said Ripley.

According to her, the communities they have considered all require her son to give up his jobs.

"And that's not what we want," she said. "He's being asked to give up everything to live there, and that's the 20 percent."

McLean resident Nancy Reeder asked representatives to oppose a bill that would provide vouchers to private schools that take in children with mental disabilities.

"Parents are probably not aware that they lose all rights when they place their child in a private school," said Reeder. "The voucher would in no way cover the cost of putting a disabled child in a private school, which would make this program only accessible to high income families… this bill would not support public education."

According to Howell, the bill was already voted down in the Senate 8 to 7. However, she added that certain senators support the bill and will continue to push the issue.

"I guarantee that we will see it come back in some form," said Howell.

TRAFFIC ISSUES were not entirely ignored at Saturday's meeting. However, the complaints that were raised seemed to be focused on small changes in specific areas. McLean resident Glenn Wise lives on Georgetown Pike near Langley High School — he requested that cautionary signs be put up outside the school to remind students to drive safely. Wise even gave Howell a list of suggested warnings, which included "Buckle Up, Then Drive," and "It's the Law."

"If a student is at Langley for three years, and he passes these [sign] everyday, he's going to be aware of it – even if he doesn't read it, he's going to pick up on it subliminally," said Wise.

Idylwood Towers Condominium resident Charles Davis said that he had a few traffic congestion solutions that "won't cost a dime." Davis suggested that trucks with three or more axles be limited to the two right lanes of major highways. He also urged representatives to push for a ban on the use of all hand-held cell phones by drivers, and to push for more stringent drivers' license requirements.

"My granddaughter just got her license, and they taught her more about how to steer the car and how to park than the rules," said Davis. "The DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] needs a test that is harder and asks a lot more questions… we need to make it harder to get a driver's license."

SURPRISINGLY, no one inquired about the Tysons Metrorail tunnel until the end of the meeting. In August of 2006, Gov. Timothy Kaine approved plans for an overhead Metrorail structure in Tysons Corner. Kaine opted for the aerial design because of fears that the more expensive underground tunnel option would jeopardize the $900 million in federal funding that is contingent upon the project meeting certain cost effectiveness standards. Scott Monett, president of the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, founded Tysons Tunnel, Inc., a community coalition made up of local businesses and civic associations that are in favor of reviving the tunnel option in Tysons.

In response to citizen inquiry about the status of the situation, Del. Callahan said that the cost effectiveness standards required for the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) funds pose a major problem.

"Even if additional money is put up by some additional source, they still don't get the $900 million," said Callahan.

However, Howell said she has not given up hope just yet.

"I'm not someone who takes no for an answer very easily," said Howell. "I think it's wrong-headed the way we're going, and I think it's possible to change it, and until someone shows me otherwise, I'm going to keep pushing it."

Del. Scott also expressed a desire to continue pursuit of the tunnel option.

"I think all of us are in favor of the tunnel, and I think there's still hope," said Scott. "It looks like, from everything I've seen, that the construction of the tunnel will cost marginally more, but in the long run it would be cheaper."

McLean resident Jack Hannon said that interruptions caused by construction of the overhead railway will damage the Tysons economy.

"When I think about it I go back to when the Washington Metro was built and you wouldn't go across town to eat lunch," said Hannon. "I fear the equation is not being properly balanced in that regard."