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A fair shake for Fairfax's other business corridor

By Toddy Puller and Scott Surovell
Mount Vernon
Sunday, July 4, 2010; C05

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' approval last month of a new land-use plan for Tysons Corner is an important accomplishment. This fall, the supervisors are set to discuss a series of new taxes to fund $1.5 billion more in road improvements for the area in addition to the multibillion-dollar Silver Line Metro extension. That's another matter entirely. The people in the eastern part of county want to know: When will the focus -- and the money -- shift our way?

Once the primary north-south artery on the East Coast, U.S. Route 1 began a steady decline in Fairfax with the completion in 1952 of the Shirley Highway (which later became I-95/395). But U.S. 1 still has much to offer, including the longest business corridor in Fairfax County -- 7.5 miles from Interstate 495/95 south to Fort Belvoir.

This corridor begins at the gateway to Virginia with the Huntington Metro Station and two Beltway exits. A short distance to the south, the road rises to one of the highest points in Fairfax, offering views of Washington National Cathedral, the Capitol and the Potomac River valley. And let's not forget that U.S. 1 is anchored by Mount Vernon, a destination that attracts a million tourists a year. That's more than Monticello or Colonial Williamsburg.

But these assets are being allowed to languish. While compact, transit-oriented development has been a success around Eisenhower Avenue across the Beltway, and the new Gaylord complex thrives just across the river, U.S. 1's best real estate continues to be eaten up by parking lots and big-box stores. Fairfax County's stretch of U.S. 1 includes six trailer parks, two Wal-Marts, four thrift stores, 14 7-Elevens, three McDonald's, a pawn shop, check-cashing stores, motels, car title lenders, coin laundries, a new tattoo parlor and numerous strip malls. Because of that, the typical U.S. 1 job involves retail tasks such as waiting tables or running cash registers. The median household income in U.S. 1's delegate district is $7,500 a year lower than any other district in Fairfax County, according to the 2000 Census, and it is half that of the other Fairfax district bordering the Potomac. On top of everything else, explosive growth in Lorton and I-95 congestion have pushed gridlock to U.S. 1 every day.

That gridlock is going to get worse. Eastern Fairfax County also faces next year's opening of the $1 billion hospital at Fort Belvoir (nearly the size of Fairfax Inova Hospital), the transfer of more than 9,000 jobs to Fort Belvoir and construction for the U.S. Army Museum, projected to attract 400,000 visitors a year. But Fairfax's first business corridor has not been widened between Alexandria and Belvoir since 1971. For years, the county's comprehensive plan has called for five Metro stations along U.S. 1, yet there has been no discussion about planning or funding this extension of Metro so we can enjoy the vibrant employment, housing and shopping communities enjoyed elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

The cost of this neglect has been clear. When the transfer of thousands of jobs to Fort Belvoir presented a significant opportunity to attract defense contractors and other new businesses, U.S. 1 was effectively shut out because of the congestion and inadequate transportation infrastructure. Those jobs are going to Springfield and Alexandria instead.

Road infrastructure is the state's responsibility, and there is no question that political malpractice in Richmond has led to a freeze on secondary road construction. Richmond must act so that our secondary road system receives the state investment it deserves. And if Tysons Corner's landowners want to create their own tax district to fund their own improvements, that should be facilitated. But investing county real estate taxes, typically not devoted to roads, into the road network of the most prosperous and highly developed part of the county is not fair. Investing in transit in an existing, compact, business-oriented area that needs attention more than any other would be a far more equitable and efficient strategy.

Fairfax County has more than one business corridor. U.S. 1 has great potential if given the right attention and enough resources. The Board of Supervisors should assemble a task force to change its planning focus to extending Metro and facilitating the long-term redevelopment of its other primary business area: the U.S. 1 corridor.

Toddy Puller represents the 36th District in the Virginia Senate. Scott Surovell represents the 44th District in the state House of Delegates. Both are Democrats.

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