Robert McCartney: Fairfax's Idea to Become a City Powerful Ammo for Road Funds

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Let's get two things straight from the start about the proposal to officially convert Fairfax County into a city. First, as usual with Northern Virginia, the real issue is roads. Second, despite what some politicians are saying, the change only makes sense if it's used to raise taxes to get more money for roads.

That said, Fairfax should do it. Adopting a city form of government could overcome the Virginia General Assembly's longstanding, irresponsible refusal to give Fairfax enough resources for transportation.

Unfortunately, the county would need the Richmond assembly's approval for it to happen. That's a real obstacle, but it's still worth the effort.

Here's the background:

Fairfax had considered becoming a city before but rejected the idea as too costly. The idea was revived Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors authorized the county executive to study it and report back in the fall. Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) is open to the plan, unlike her predecessor, U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whom she succeeded in February.

The change would require a countywide referendum and take at least two years to enact. The new city of Fairfax would have a population of more than 1 million, nearly double that of the District, and absorb the existing City of Fairfax, population 24,000.

Among other things, the switch could give Fairfax a mayor and city council instead of a Board of Supervisors. But the two main issues at stake are control and funding of county roads.

If it became a city, Fairfax would assume responsibility for its secondary roads from the Virginia Department of Transportation. It might take over the primary roads as well -- such as routes 50, 7 and 123 -- depending on how the city charter was written. The Beltway, Interstate 66 and other interstates would not be included.

The takeover would please board members frustrated for being wrongly faulted by constituents for failing to repave roads, add stoplights, fill potholes and, especially, keep grass mowed alongside roads. County Executive Anthony H. Griffin cited a recent study showing that nine of 10 residents have the false impression that the county is responsible for the roads.

"We're blamed for it, and we have no leverage over it," said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who chairs the board's transportation committee. "I'm really sick of being a broken record explaining that to people."

The state has steadily reduced road improvements and maintenance because it's starved for funds, largely the result of anti-tax sentiment in the Republican-led House of Delegates. State funds for secondary road improvements in Fairfax were $28 million six years ago. For the fiscal year that began Wednesday, they've been slashed to a mere $240,000. "That maybe buys us one traffic signal," McKay said.

VDOT would be happy to unload the job on Fairfax and other localities and might eventually have no choice. In most of the nation, communities rather than states handle secondary roads.

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