When Thomas F. Farley joined the Virginia Department of Transportation, back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, there was no Interstate 66, Metrorail was in its infancy, and transportation planners weren't anticipating anywhere near the problems they would be facing over the next few decades.
Twenty-six years later, after a career that includes serving as district administrator for Northern Virginia for the past 11 years, Farley said his successors ought to avoid making the same mistakes he and others did in not planning for the next rush of development.
"We didn't recognize the change in demographics as quickly as we should have," said Farley, 54, noting that Fairfax County was little more than a bedroom community in the late 1970s. Now Northern Virginia is a defined region with its own business and population centers, and planners need to start thinking of it that way, Farley said.
"What we need to do is we need to stop thinking about transportation as primarily radial to Washington," he said. "We need to do it for Northern Virginia."
Farley's retirement on July 24 comes at a time when thoughts of fixing the region's transportation problems are confounded by the shrinking amount of money available for new projects. Even though Virginia's elected officials approved a major tax increase earlier this year, scant new money went toward roads and rail. Officials have turned to private companies to fill the void, but the state lacks the money even to contribute its share of some of those proposals.
Farley's voice joins a chorus of elected officials and transportation planners who are calling on lawmakers to better fund transportation services. Unlike many, he said that the General Assembly's failure to do so couldn't just be pinned on downstate lawmakers who don't appreciate what it's like to wait 45 minutes to go a mile on the Capital Beltway.
"It's not just Richmond," he said. "Here up in Northern Virginia there's a lot of education we need to do."
Farley blamed a lack of education as part of the reason for voters' defeat of a tax measure in 2002 that would have infused billions of dollars into regional projects.
If new money does appear, Farley said, a primary use for it should be bolstering the region's commuter rail system by expanding Metro and Virginia Railway Express. Also, he said, light rail options should be considered to serve existing communities and the outer suburban counties where growth is strongest.
"We can't ignore the fact that the Staffords, Spotsylvanias, Fauquiers and Culpepers are growing," Farley said. "Ignoring that would be the same kind of thing I experienced in the 1980s."
Farley also said leaders ought to consider investing in more infrastructure. VRE, for instance, doesn't own the train tracks it uses, which complicates its operations.
Despite the challenges ahead, Farley said his proudest accomplishment at the agency has been balancing the demands of state leaders in Richmond against those of local officials in Northern Virginia, a historic problem for VDOT officials.
Young Ho Chang, Fairfax County's transportation chief, can attest to that. "There continues to be better coordination, better communication with the programming aspect with the district office and central office," said Chang, who added that Farley excelled at that most unbureaucratic thing -- cutting down on red tape. "Tom is comfortable enough where he allows us to communicate directly with the central office," he said.
Chang added that "not many people know he's the longest serving district administrator in the state. Couple that with where he's been working, and it really tells you something about Tom."
Farley said he's retiring from VDOT because "there comes a point in time where you need to make a change." He said he means that for himself and for the agency.
But he won't be disappearing entirely. He said he will work in the private sector in the hopes that he will "still be an active and influential party in the way transportation is done in this region."
Not just yet, though. Moments after hanging up the phone from an interview, Farley took off for a fishing trip, as any good retiree should.