The Fairfax County referendum for a $135 million bond for roads was incorrectly described in yesterday's Metro section. The road bond issue is the largest ever proposed in Virginia.
The most popular issue before Fairfax County voters Tuesday may be the referendum on a $135 million bond for roads that, despite its status as the largest road bond ever proposed by a Virginia county history, faces little organized opposition.
The bond issue would enable the county to borrow to finance 14 major road projects, including the first two segments of the planned cross-county Springfield Bypass, which would roughly parallel the Capital Beltway in the county's west and south. The bypass segments comprise nearly $90 million of the bond package.
The road widening and construction are planned to ease some of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the booming Virginia suburbs and are critical to future economic development in the county, officials say.
A coalition of some of Fairfax County's most powerful business and civic activists -- including many in its building community -- support the bond issue.
To win broad support, the group has enlisted a public relations firm, raised about $30,000 and issued enough brochures and flyers to fill a thick folder. The largest contributors to the effort include lawyer-developer John T. (Til) Hazel, whose Fair Lakes development at Rtes. I-66 and 50 would tie into one of the proposed bypass segments, and the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors. Each has donated $5,000.
Arrayed against this coalition are a few environmentalists and fiscal conservatives who have limited resources to marshal against the bond issue.
"It's an unequal battle," acknowledged Gary Nelson, an official of the Northern Virginia Sierra Club who is leading the forces opposed to the bond issue. "We don't have the time or the money to fight it."
The opponents argue that the road projects will lead to more development, more traffic, more bonds and higher real estate taxes.
They warn that at least one of the projects -- the $13 million extension of South Van Dorn Street to connect with Lockheed Boulevard south of Alexandria -- poses an environmental threat to Huntley Meadows, a wildlife preserve and one of the largest natural wetlands in the Washington area. The new road would slice through the northern end of Huntley Meadows.
In a preliminary environmental statement released Monday, county officials said that tests, while not complete, indicate that the new road would not harm the park -- a contention disputed vehemently by a group called the Citizens Alliance to Save Huntley.
Norma D. Hoffman, president of the group, branded the county report a "preelection maneuver to counteract the formidable evidence that we have presented" outlining the environmental dangers of building a road through the park. She called the county's decision to release an environmental report before the tests were complete "extremely unprofessional."
The Huntley group is the best organized and most active opponent of the road bond issue, and its efforts have been evident in the area of the county near the park. But bond proponents note the referendum would finance more road projects in southeast Fairfax than any other section of the county, and say the group's chances of stirring significant opposition are limited.
Recent history also bodes poorly for the antibond forces. In 1981 and 1982, road bonds of $25 million and $30 million were easily approved in Fairfax referendums, each drawing more than 60 percent of the vote. The bond needs only a majority vote to be approved.
The success of those bond proposals was taken by county officials as a sign that Fairfax voters had reached the limit of their patience with worsening traffic and would be willing to borrow heavily to improve clogged roads.
"Almost a sense of desperation has set in," said County Board Vice Chairman Martha V. Pennino, who has campaigned this fall for the bond issue. "If Board Chairman John F. Herrity and I stayed home, the bond would still be voted for overwhelmingly."
Until the referendums in 1981 and 1982, no county in Virginia had borrowed money on its own to finance road-building, which had been exclusively a state responsibility since the Depression. When the state highway department said it did not have the money to keep pace with the explosion of growth in Northern Virginia, Fairfax sought and received permission from the Virginia legislature to borrow money through bond issues for road projects. Those funds were used to supplement annual appropriations from the state.
"People do feel that the highways are a state obligation," said Pennino. "But they recognize that the state does not have the wherewithal to solve our transportation needs."
Pennino is not the only prominent county politician who is stumping for the bond issue. Herrity, the principal champion of the Springfield Bypass for more than a decade, has made about 25 appearances before civic groups all over the county to promote the bond.
Herrity, one of the few county politicians whose name is a household name in Fairfax, seems to have taken on the passage of the bond as a personal crusade. Some officials say Herrity regards building the Springfield Bypass as his best chance for an enduring and visible legacy in Fairfax.
If the proposed bond is defeated, said Herrity, "The bypass probably would not be built. It would take 80 years to get enough money in state road funding to build a bypass."
Herrity and county staff members contend that real estate taxes would not rise as a direct result of the bond's passage. They say continued economic growth in Fairfax will provide a tax base large enough to offset the higher debt level. They acknowledge, however, that without the bonds, taxes might fall.
Opponents of the bond issue say the bypass raises the specter of a second beltway snaking across the county, accompanied by bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic and intense commercial development.
These arguments seem unlikely to hit home with an electorate that all officials say is preoccupied with traffic problems.
"I haven't met anyone who is against it," said James P. Popino, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce president. "My guess is that 70 percent-plus will vote for it."
The only other bond question in the county Tuesday involves an expansion of the McLean Community Center. This referendum, which will be presented only to voters in a small tax district in the McLean area, asks if a $1.5 million bond should be floated to help finance a $2.9 million expansion. The project would use funds from a reserve fund in the district to enlarge the center's lobby, stage and theater, build meeting and storage rooms, and add 44 parking spaces.
Voters in Fairfax City are being asked to approve a $4.3 million bond issue to improve the city's water system.