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Economic Uncertainty Casts Shadow Here

Frey gives details in State of Sully talk.

Michael Frey discusses Fairfax County’s economic outlook.

Michael Frey discusses Fairfax County’s economic outlook. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

Growing Fairfax County Has Increasing Needs

In a county of more than a million people, the needs are many, but the dollars can stretch only so far. That’s the message Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) brought last week to local residents.

For years, Fairfax County has relied on residential property tax revenue to fuel a great part of its economy. But the economic downtown changed things drastically, leaving the country scrambling to find other sources of money.

Owners of all county property zoned commercial/industrial currently pay an extra 11 cents on the property-tax rate. Frey said this practice generates an extra $50 million/year, and “that’s what we’re looking at to make up the shortfall on Dulles Rail — and pretty much everything else.”

“We don’t expect any real growth in residential development, but it’s still too early to say,” he said. “So it’s going to make another budget year tough.”

Noting that county schools are continuing to grow, Frey said it wasn’t too long ago that they contained 160,000 students, but now that number is about 183,000. “And that puts a lot of pressure on our budget,” he said. “The school system’s CIP [Capital Improvement Program] is calling for a new elementary school [in this area] and a new high school somewhere between Westfield and Herndon high schools.”

Additionally, said Frey, “Situations like Newtown make us focus on mental-health services and the funding for it, so I expect us to continue to see an increased demand for these services.”

Regarding public safety, he said, “The more people we get, the more police and fire personnel we’re going to need. And we have a lot of fire stations that haven’t been renovated in a long time. We hope to be done with the Fair Oaks Fire Station renovation by spring; some of the new pumpers and ladder trucks didn’t fit into the old building.”

Other factors will also affect the county budget. For example, the General Assembly is now requiring all jurisdictions to develop new, stormwater-management systems. “The hard part is understanding the relationships between it and the other local, state and federal stormwater requirements,” said Frey.

Nonetheless, he said, “We hope to have something by the end of the year for the board to act on — and it’s going to be a huge expense. Right now, residents pay a penny for this; but to meet the new federal and state requirements in the next five to eight years, it’ll be 10 cents — and we don’t have a choice.”

There are other needs, as well. “We were able to restore some of the library hours, but it’ll be a challenge to keep them,” said Frey. “We have more demand for trails and ballfields for kids. And they should be turf fields because you get about 60-percent more play out of them than out of grass fields.”

He’d also like to do additional historic preservation. “Level Green in Chantilly is probably one of the three oldest houses in Fairfax County,” he said. “I’d hate to lose it, but historic preservation is very expensive. We’d also like to do more in the Centreville Historic District; but it depends on a healthy economy which, for the most part, is largely out of our hands.”

— Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) gave his State of Sully address last week, talking mainly about Fairfax County’s economy and transportation issues. He spoke last Monday, Jan. 21, at the quarterly meeting of the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA).

Although many good things are on the horizon, he said, they’re also tinged with uncertainly.

“We have a strong, educated workforce in Northern Virginia, so I’m optimistic that we’ll have a bright future here,” said Frey. “But no one knows how long it’ll take to get here.”

Basically, he said, “We’re facing a lot of challenges — some we control directly, but an awful lot we don’t. The federal government is still figuring out where it wants to go.”

“You look at the future of Northern Virginia and Fairfax County and you wonder what it’ll look like economically. I don’t think we’ll see a vibrant Tysons anytime soon, and the county’s $67 million short to fund the Silver Line.”

— Sully Supervisor Michael R. Frey

Whether spending cuts or tax increases will come, “Everyone is still so reliant, in all their projections, on economic growth — and I wonder why they’re so optimistic,” said Frey. “All the people I talk to — except for those in Tysons — say, ‘Who are you kidding? No one’s investing.’”

Still, he said, “Somebody in the federal government is assuming there’ll be huge growth over the next 10 years. But while we’re raising taxes by $25 billion for next year, we just spent $60 billion for [Hurricane] Sandy, so we’re not getting anywhere.”

Frey said all this economic uncertainty affects the state. As a result, he said, “We don’t know how much the state will expand Medicaid. Gov. McDonnell says no. I find it ironic that Virginia — so adamant about state’s rights — declined to set up its own state, health-care plan.”

So with so many unknowns, said Frey, “You look at the future of Northern Virginia and Fairfax County and you wonder what it’ll look like economically. I don’t think we’ll see a vibrant Tysons anytime soon, and the county’s $67 million short to fund the Silver Line.”

“We’re also still $150 million short, at least, on our obligation on Phase II of [Dulles] Rail,” he continued. “They expect to award the contract in the spring, with construction starting in summer. Passenger service for Phase I is expected to start by the end of this year, and it will certainly change the face of this region.”

REGARDING VDOT’S I-66 Corridor Environmental Impact Study (EIS), Frey noted that Phase I is about extending I-66 from the Beltway to Route 15. “It doesn’t do an analysis of the I-66/Route 28 intersection [in Centreville] or of a rail line down the center,” said Frey. “These things will be done in Phase II of that study. It won’t take as long to do the EIS in two phases, so this is a good step forward.”

He said the Board of Supervisors believes the next extension of rail should be in the I-66 Corridor. However, said Frey, “If the FBI moves to Springfield, it’ll cost us some money, so we’re looking to get ahead of the curve. But I’m concerned that we continue to focus on other areas of the county, like Tysons and Springfield, when the congestion is here.”

Meanwhile, he said, some spot improvements will help drivers locally. “There’s a plan to have four lanes from Route 50 to the Dulles Toll Road and we’re moving ahead with some pieces of that,” said Frey. “We’re looking to do some of it with Route 28 Tax District money.”

One change already benefiting drivers here has been the extension of the merge lane onto Route 28 north from I-66 west. Now, motorists don’t have to turn at Walney and have another quarter mile to merge into traffic.

There’s also a plan to lengthen the turn lanes from Route 28 south to I-66 east. These lanes currently back up during both morning and evening rush hours. Frey said relief should be underway in the next few months.

“We also want to extend the right-turn-only lane from Route 28 south to Braddock Road and make it also a through lane to go west on I-66,” he said. “There are some right-of-way and drainage issues, but VDOT wants to build up that lane between Braddock and the I-66 ramp.”

AS FOR THE INTERSECTION of Braddock and Pleasant Valley roads (by Cox Farms), Frey acknowledged that “it’s been a problem for awhile — two, tiny, one-lane roads with no turning lanes. Because of poor drainage, it ices in winter and floods in spring. There’s not any room to separate turning lanes and put in a traffic signal, and a traffic circle would cost $6 million-plus.”

Besides that, added WFCCA’s Judy Heisinger, “When they did the traffic counts for a traffic circle, the density was too high.” So Fairfax County tabled its plans to fix that intersection. And although Loudoun County ponied up some money of its own, got VDOT to do likewise and hopes to improve that intersection somehow, Fairfax has no money to contribute to the effort.

“But VDOT says its design analysis will be done in a few weeks,” said Frey. “I’d expect, sometime this spring, we’ll have a meeting about it. Virginia Run’s concerned that fixing the intersection will cause more traffic. It’s more congestion than is acceptable, so we’ve got to do something about it — but we still don’t have the money for it.”

He said only a “couple hundred” of Fairfax County’s nearly 1.1 million people responded to a survey about transportation-system improvements. “They said, ‘We want the improvements, but don’t use property-tax money for them,’” said Frey. “They said use hotel or rental-car taxes for them or have developers pay for them.”