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Topic of the week: Where we live

Our contributors all roughly share similar views on ways the city could be built and operate, yet we all chose to live in different places across the region. So we asked them, "where do you live, and why did you choose to live there?" Here are some highlights:

Logan Circle. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Andrew Bossi, Logan Circle: When I moved here from Laurel in 2010, I saved money on taxes, utilities, and transportationeasily making up for the increase in rent. I live by Logan Circle, a 10-15 minute stroll from every Metro Line, Chinatown, and the 9th, 14th, and U Street corridors, and there are buses that fill in the subway's gapsgetting me to Georgetown, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan. Still need to find a decent way to Capitol Hill... but I often just go by foot; even that is an easy walk.

My 50-minute commute to work consists half walking, half railand I love it. My commute is my exercise. In my spare time I find a delight to going on a stroll that takes me past major world landmarks, always with my camera in hand. Lastly, I'm surrounded by four grocery stores (so many of my friends aren't even near one) and enjoy a quiet neighborhood with a great view of the Washington Monument and National Cathedral from my roof. I just wish I could actually afford to own a place in my neighborhood.

Veronica Davis, Fairfax Village: In 2005, I was living with my dad in Potomac. I was perfectly happy being a freeloader, but the commute to L'Enfant Plaza was killing my time and my wallet. It was time to start looking for my own place. (The real reason I was motivated to move: my dad was selling the house). I wanted to live in a condo and I didn't want to drive for any portion of my work trip. The minute I saw Fairfax Village I knew this was the place for me. The selling points were:

  1. 1 seat bus ride to L'Enfant Plaza for $2.50 round trip (2005 bus fares)
  2. The crime was relatively low, which was important as a single woman in my mid-20s.
  3. Older neighbors who knew everyone and everything in the neighborhood gave my mom comfort that I'd have people checking in on me.
  4. A suburban feel without being in the suburbs. It's a quiet neighborhood with manicured lawns and plush trees.
  5. Skyland Town Center was "coming", promising new amenities less than a mile from my condo.

Mount Rainier. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Brent Bolin, Mt. Rainier: I moved here in 2002 and ended up in Maryland because I couldn't afford DC and the MD politics were a good fit. We looked in a lot of different places before we discovered Mount Rainier and fell in love with the sense of community and the overall vibe. A historic streetcar suburb right on the DC border, the city has great fabric and great architecture that promotes front porch culture and close ties with neighbors.

I live a block from Glut Co-op, a funky progressive food store that's the heart of our neighborhood and a good lens on the diverse, progressive, working class values that have defined the community. We have incredible bus service from our town center down Rhode Island Ave in addition to the West Hyattsville Metro station on the north side of town. We are very near the Anacostia Tributary Trail network to get out by bike or on foot to great park amenities.

Topher Mathews, Georgetown: I moved to Georgetown from Arlington in 2003 because my roommate and I found a ridiculously cheap two bedroom apartment overlooking Montrose Park on R St. The unique juxtaposition of the bucolic charm of the park with the dense neighborhood was enough for us to break our lease on a drab garden apartment in Courthouse. I've stayed and started a family here because I love the history, the dense walkability, the parks, and of course the close proximity of over 500 shops and restaurants.

I also love that I can quickly get to all the other great central DC neighborhoods with a short bus or bike ride. I look forward to raising my daughter in such a beautiful and multifaceted neighborhood, but with a mind towards emphasizing to her the need to foster the literal and figurative connections between Georgetown and the city it belongs to.

Falls Church. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas on Flickr.

Canaan Merchant, Falls Church: I live in downtown Falls Church. I moved there in August where I traded proximity to the metro in Arlington for a little more space in my apartment but without sacrificing overall walkability. Regardless, I'm well within a 1/2 mile of a hardware store, music shop, bowling alley, dry cleaner, barber, several restaurants, and even a major music venue.

Bus service is pretty frequent on routes 7 and 29 which allows me to function very well without a car of my own. And I can still walk to East Falls Church Metro if I need to. Falls Church is a great example of how being a suburb doesn't automatically mean one must have a car to get around and how good principles of urban development can work at several different levels of density.

Dan Reed, Silver Spring: When I finished graduate school in Philadelphia, I was unemployed and moved back in with my parents in Silver Spring. I knew that whenever I moved out, I wanted to have what I had in West Philly: a grocery store, coffeeshop, and bar within walking distance, the ability to get to work without driving, saving my time in the car for fun trips; and chill, friendly neighbors with a strong sense of community. And I wanted to live in Montgomery County, where I'd already gotten my hands dirty in blogging and activism for several years.

It wasn't easy, but I found it all one mile from downtown Silver Spring, and I plan to stick around, if only to give my DC friends an excuse to visit and learn that yes, there is life beyond Eastern Avenue, and better food too.

Aimee Custis, Dupont Circle: In the 6 years I've lived in the District, I've lived in 3 separate neighborhoods, but my current neighborhood, Dupont Circle, is my favorite. I love being in the middle of things in central DCgoing out for froyo or picking up a prescription at midnight on a weekday.

In Dupont I've always felt completely safe, even living alone as a 20-something single woman and walking home from a service industry job late at night. Also, it's surprisingly (to me) affordable and a great value for what I do pay. In my price range, with the amenities I want, I've been able to find lots of choices in Dupont, when I've been priced out elsewhere.

David Versel, Springfield: When I returned to the DC area 2011 after 10 years away, I was met with sticker shock when I tried to find a 3-4 bedroom home for my family near my job at the time in the Fort Belvoir area. We ended up renting a townhouse in Springfield; later, we bought a 47-year old fixer-upper and got to work.

As far as suburbs go, you could do a lot worse. I am a short drive from the Franconia-Springfield Metro, and can walk or bike to several Metrobus and Fairfax Connector lines. I have also found this area to be very diverse and interesting in terms of the people and the ethnic dining options, and my neighborhood is also one of those rare places where kids still play outside with only occasional glances from parents. And the schools really are great in Fairfax County.

All that said, I am still largely car-dependent, and no matter how I get to my current job in Arlington, it still takes an hour each way. When my youngest kid finishes high school, my wife and I will be returning to the city.

These are just a few of the responses we got. There were so many, we couldn't fit them all in one post, but we could fit them on a map.

Click for interactive map.

What about you? Where do you live and why?


Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.

Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars. Image from BeyondDC.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section letting Northern Virginia raise and allocate hundreds of millions per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line's Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA's legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it's over to actually start spending money. Taking the issue to court now means NVTA won't have to spend years fending off other court challenges.

The project list is below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA's website.

ProjectFunding (millions)Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station$41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars$19.8Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform$7.9Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses$7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains$5  Regional
DASH buses$3.3Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study$2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays$1.5Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning$1.5Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements$1.3Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)$1.1Fairfax Co.
ART buses$1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride$1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses$0.9Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)$0.8Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit$0.7Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority$0.7Alexandria
PRTC bus$0.6Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information$0.5Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge$0.3Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters$0.2Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 - Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr$28  Prince William
Rt 28 - Dulles to Rt 50$20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway$20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities)$12  Arlington
Rt 28 - McLearen to Dulles$11.1Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 - Loudoun "hot spots"$6.4Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening$5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange$4.3Arlington
Rt 1 - Featherstone Rd to Mary's Way$3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange$1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St$0.5Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd$0.5Fairfax Co.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Bright hopes, some obstacles for Northern Virginia streetcars

Streetcar supporters in Northern Virginia hope to see streetcar lines traversing many of Northern Virginia's cities and counties, linking housing to employment centers within and across jurisdictions, often retracing routes operated decades ago.

A modern streetcar. Photo from Arlington County.

To get streetcars across boundaries, however, the many local governments must coordinate their plans and deal with differences in their abilities to fund projects.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition's top priority this year is supporting Arlington's plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines. It also will encourage other cities and counties to consider streetcar options.

Arlington has steadfastly supported a vision of smart growth around transit nodes and multimodal transportation options for a great many years. Thanks to this consistency, their work has paid off in positioning Arlington as a good place to live and work.

By selecting streetcar rather than some variety of enhanced bus service, Arlington is reinforcing its past planning efforts by providing investors and developers along the two corridors with the certainty that only a commitment to a fixed alignment can give.

Arlington and Fairfax counties worked together on plans for high-capacity transit along Columbia Pike for several years, and in July 2012 voted to select streetcar as the preferred option for Columbia Pike and apply for federal funding. Arlington also plans a streetcar line for Crystal City to connect with the Columbia Pike line.

The 5 mile long Columbia Pike line, as currently planned, will cross into Fairfax County, terminating at Skyline. The 2½ mile long Crystal City line, on the other hand, will terminate at Four Mile Run, the boundary between Arlington and Alexandria.

Proposed streetcar alignments in Arlington. Image from Arlington County.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has been studying transit for Route 1 and the Beauregard/Van Dorn transit corridors. NVSC wants to ensure no decisions would preclude using streetcars in those areas.

NVSC also will encourage Fairfax County to expand its streetcar lines beyond Skyline, going either toward Falls Church along Route 7, toward Northern Virginia Community College and the Mark Center east of Skyline, or along Route 1 south of Alexandria. Finally, ongoing studies in various jurisdictions could identify additional corridors suitable for streetcars.

Leaders emphasize need for transit, desire to coordinate

In November, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition hosted a public meeting where leaders from Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Falls Church discussed, in a spirited but positive manner, regional cooperation in planning high-capacity transit.

They saw Northern Virginia's future as multimodal, with mixed uses around transit stations. Then-Arlington Board Chair Mary Hynes noted that Virginia commuters to DC must cross Arlington. Without its multi-modal strategy, she said, the county would "become a parking lot."

All of the officials emphasized that the jurisdictions want work together, and have coordinated in many ways. However, due to differences in funds available for transit and each jurisdiction's priorities, it has not always been possible to think regionally in spite of best intentions.

Arlington has been more successful at raising funds for transportation capital projects than its neighbors, partially due to its more balanced ratio of commercial to residential property and its commercial add-on tax for transportation.

Paul Smedberg, a member of the Alexandria City Council, spoke of the need for a streetcar connection to the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center. Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives.

Former Falls Church City Council member Dan Maller, standing in for Vice-Mayor David Snyder, noted that he was eager to work with Fairfax on a Route 7 extension to Falls Church. Somewhat reassuringly, Alexandrians learned that they would have continuous transit options to get from their city to Arlington without transferring at Four Mile Runalthough presently these are bus options rather than streetcar options.

As local and regional plans for high-capacity transit develop, decision-makers must think long-term and regionally. Not every transit route is suitable for streetcars, but where cities and counties want environmentally-sound, reliable, clean transportation that also contributes to local economic development, they should consider streetcar lines and ensure they can interoperate across jurisdictional boundaries now and in the future.


Streetcar backers ask NoVA officials to cooperate on transit

When the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition formed in early 2010, we thought it would be pretty easy to bring Northern Virginia officials to our way of thinking: streetcars should be part of each jurisdiction's array of transit options to connect Northern Virginia people, homes, and jobs.

Photo by fairfaxcounty on Flickr.

Since then, there have been notable successes:

  • After completing a NEPA process, both Arlington and Fairfax Counties selected streetcars as the "Locally Preferred Alternative" for the Columbia Pike Line between Skyline and the north end of Crystal City.
  • Arlington adopted its Crystal City Sector Plan that includes provision for streetcar service through Crystal City to Four Mile Run, connecting to the Columbia Pike line.
  • After almost three years, funds Congressman Jim Moran earmarked to study transit options along Route 7 are finally close to release. The City of Falls Church will finally get a chance to consider streetcars (along with other transit options).
  • Fairfax County is a participant in several transit studies that may identify potential streetcar corridors.
  • The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition was able to pull together a TIGER II grant application coordinated by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and signed by the City of Alexandria and Arlington County. Unfortunately, the application did not win a TIGER grant.
And there have been some disappointments:
  • Northern Virginia Community College's bid to host a streetcar maintenance facility on their Alexandria campus was found to be infeasible by the Columbia Pike Transit study team, foreclosing the option of serving the campus and possibly the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center by streetcar.
  • Along the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor (Route 1), Alexandria selected Bus Rapid Transit as the preferred mode of transportation to connect to Arlington's Crystal City streetcar line, with the option of converting to streetcars later. NVSC is suggesting Alexandria continue the Arlington streetcar south of Four Mile Run at least to the planned Potomac Yard Metro Station.
  • The Alexandria Transportation Master Plan corridor studies have all selected bus or BRT as the preferred mode of transit.
As DC's streetcar system moves forward, and as we get closer to the Columbia Pike line's planned opening in 2017, there should be many opportunities for local officials to support studies of potential alignments for streetcars, connection of streetcar stations and terminus points with other transit facilities, and other options for high-capacity transit to connect activity centers in Northern Virginia.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition is hosting its Annual Meeting on November 14, 2012 from 7 to 9 pm at Skyline Technology Center, 5275 Leesburg Pike. The meeting is open to the public and free of charge. We have invited Mary Hynes, Chair of the Arlington County Board; Penny Gross, Supervisor, Mason District, Fairfax County; Paul Smedberg, Alexandria City Council; and David Snyder, Vice Mayor, Falls Church to discuss opportunities for cooperation among jurisdictions in planning for high capacity transit solutions to connect Northern Virginia.

What questions would you want to have asked of this panel? Please comment with some specific questions our moderators could ask.

Public Spaces

Residents want Seven Corners safer for walking and biking

Residents and business owners at Seven Corners want to make the area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, provide better transit or otherwise alleviate the traffic congestion, and preserve the diverse population and affordable housing.

The Eden Center, one part of the Seven Corners area. Photo by dewitahs on Flickr.

Those were common themes from more than 100 Seven Corners residents and business owners at a May 21 session organized by the Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization (OCR).

The "visioning exercise," which called for participants to meet in small groups to list what they perceive as the area's strengths and challenges and their vision for the future, is the first step in a county process to develop a framework for guiding redevelopment.

Among the assets cited by residents were:

  • The diverse population of Seven Corners, including diversity of cultures, ages, and incomes
  • Plenty of affordable housing
  • The history of the area, including events from the Civil War and the first shopping center in Northern Virginia
  • The proximity to Washington, DC
  • A variety of shopping and dining options
  • Stable, established neighborhoods nearby
Challenges that need to be addressed:
  • Route 50 and Route 7 are major barriers and make it extremely difficult to walk through the area
  • Too much litter and too many illegal signs
  • There is no chamber of commerce or other organization of business owners
  • The schools are overcrowded and need renovation
  • The larger Seven Corners area is divided among different jurisdictionsArlington and the City of Falls Church, as well as Fairfax County

The map of Seven Corners illustrates the lack of connectivity. Photo by the author of a display board presented at the meeting.

Just about everybody cited the traffic congestion as a huge challenge. The ideas that emerged for addressing it included improving the synchronization of traffic lights, totally redesigning the Route 50/Route 7 intersection, and providing an express bus to DC.

Other ideas mentioned for improving Seven Corners, some of them long-term:

  • Improve the streetscapes
  • Provide more community gathering places, such as parks, outdoor cafes, and farmers' markets
  • Create a public/private partnership to spur revitalization
  • Add an escalator to connect the two levels of the Seven Corners Shopping Center
  • Provide streetcars to connect Seven Corners to the East Falls Church Metro station and other centers, such as Tysons and Alexandria
  • Get rid of the large parking lots and create a central plaza
  • Attract more young professionals, while also retaining a diverse mix of cultures, ages, and incomes
  • Add amenities, such as bike trails, parks, soccer fields, a movie theater, more trees, open space, and public art
  • Build mixed-use developments combining housing and retail

Binh Nguyen. Photo by the author.
Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce for the Greater Washington, DC area, said many of the Eden Center business owners had been thinking of leaving the area due to the declining economy and civil rights issueseven though some 70,000 people come to that shopping center every weekend.

But the possibility of revitalizing Seven Corners is a hopeful sign. "We want to be a part of this great community," he said, adding that Vietnamese businesses are interested in contributing to the development of a new community center.

Alejandria Caballero of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services reported on the concerns of some of the apartment residents. They want more parks, more police patrols to make the streets safer for evening walks, more family-friendly restaurants, and a more accessible health clinic. They said the Willston Multicultural Center needs to be renovated and the pedestrian bridge over Route 50 needs to be cleaned up.

Iqbal Khaiy. Photo by the author.
The biggest problem is traffic congestion, said Iqbal Khaiy, who also mentioned the lack of walkability, the overcrowded schools, and the need to create "a sense of place." She said it's important to "retain the character and diversity of Seven Corners and give it a facelift."

Jeff Longo said that even though he lives and works in Seven Corners, he can't walk to work because it's impossible to cross the street. The benefits of the area include convenience, diversity, variety of restaurants, and proximity to Arlington and DC, but there is "too much concrete and not enough green."

Debbie Smith called for "smart development that doesn't strain natural resources." And several people mentioned the need to retain the unique character of Seven Corners and not copy Ballston or Tysons Corner.

The OCR will prepare a summary of the comments to share at the next workshop, which will be held June 18, 7 pm at the same location, 6245 Leesburg Pike.

Meanwhile, a major clean-up effort to get rid of the litter and illegal signs, is tentatively scheduled for June 23.

Cross-posted at Annandale VA.


Widening I-66 achieves little vs. cheaper alternatives

Virginians have debated widening I-66 for many years, but preliminary results of a VDOT study show that I-66 commuters could get the same benefits and save hundreds of millions by just converting existing lanes to HOT lanes instead. Drivers and transit riders alike would also benefit from turning the shoulder of US-50 into a dedicated bus lane.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

VDOT is close to completing its "multimodal" study of the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway. The study team looked at a wide variety of options, from Metro to buses to adding lanes to Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies like better rider information and dynamic ridesharing.

The full study isn't out yet, but VDOT has released information on four "packages" of improvements they modeled:

  1. Make both lanes of I-66 free for buses and HOV-3 at all times, and toll single-passenger vehicles (SOV) and HOV-2 at all times.
  2. Add a 3rd lane to I-66. Make all 3 free for buses and HOV-3, tolled for SOV and HOV-2 at all times.
  3. Add a 3rd lane to I-66 to be HOV-2 in the reverse peak. In the peak direction (eastbound mornings, westbound evenings), keep all lanes HOV-3. Off-peak, leave all lanes open to anyone (as they are today).
  4. Make the shoulder of US-50 into a bus lane. Add express bus service to downtown DC from places along the I-66 and Dulles corridors.
All of these assume that Virginia has finished all of the projects in the existing Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). That includes the so-called "spot improvements" that widen I-66 in select places, and also converting I-66 to HOV-3.

Packages 1 and 2, the HOT lane options, both would help SOV and HOV-2 drivers and hurt HOV-3 drivers, compared to the default of having I-66 be HOV-3 only. But there's not a whole lot of difference between the two. According to the model, having the extra lane would slightly harm transit and speed drivers by about 2%, at a cost of $310-685 million.

Package 1 (convert existing lanes to HOT lanes):

Package 2 (add 3rd lane, convert all to HOT lanes):

Package 3 induces more driving but doesn't do much to change travel times for anyone. Package 4, the US-50 bus lanes, would improve travel times on transit by 7%, and drivers benefit by a very small amount. The presentation says that a number of people switch from rail to bus because the buses improve, which should also help with crowding on Metro.

Package 3 (add HOV lane):

Package 4 (bus lane on US-50):

The packages also factor in projects like better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, TDM programs, Integrated Corridor Management (ICM) like digital signs and ramp meters, added bus service and more.

These graphs are all a tiny bit confusing because VDOT assumed as the "baseline" that I-66 has changed from the current HOV-2 to HOV-3, and that they've already widened in some places with "spot improvements."

It would have been more helpful for laypeople if we could also compare each alternative to what would happen if VDOT didn't build the "spot improvements" and didn't change to HOV-3. In fact, an initial impetus for this study was to find out whether the spot improvements are a good idea in the first place, or whether other options would work better.

VDOT will release the study, including more details and its recommendations, in June. It seems unlikely that they would recommend widening I-66 given these results. A combination of options 1 and 4 seems like it could deliver real improvements to both drivers and transit riders without spending a lot of money on complex, unpopular, and minimally helpful highway widening projects.

Residents can provide comments to VDOT by emailing

Update: The original version of this post showed incorrect graphs for packages 2 and 3. The graphs have been corrected to match those from the VDOT presentation.


Can Falls Church ban parties endorsing local candidates?

Virginia state law prohibits ballots from listing partisan affiliation for local elections. The Falls Church City Council wants to go a step further, banning political parties from endorsing candidates in city races altogether. Can they do this, and with extremely limited public input?

Photo by yakfur on Flickr.

In the wake of two major shakeups to Falls Church city politics, the City Council is set to vote tonight on amendments to the city charter that were just drawn up at the council work session a week ago.

Under the amendments, candidates for the city who are nominated by political party primary or convention will not be listed at all on the ballot. Candidates can only be nominated by petition, the way non-party candidates get on the ballot today.

The amendments warn against not just the evils of partisan elections, but of partisan candidates.

Why the rush to change the charter? Under Virginia's Dillon's Rule system, the changes need Virginia General Assembly approval, so the city council wants to get the amendments into its legislative package in time for the next General Assembly session in January.

Unfortunately, it seems the City Council is putting that deadline ahead of opportunity for public input. This is an especially unfortunate move after voters just dealt the council a harsh rebuke in this month's election.

Voters rejected City Council efforts to keep city elections in May, passing a referendum to move city elections to November by a stunningly large 2-to-1 margin. Referendum opponents warned voters a move to November could make city elections more partisan, but voters ignored those arguments.

Then, just days later, the civic organization Citizens for a Better City (CBC) announced it would no longer endorse local political candidates. As the Falls Church News-Press editorialized, the changes left a sudden void:

So now, there is a flattened and broadened political landscape: no direction and twice the voters. One could call that a more "purely democratic" environment, but it may advisable to revisit Plato's "The Republic" for a poignant critique of the shortcomings, or, better, short livelihood, of "pure democracies."

The CBC may have thought it could dictate by its action a newly-leveled political environment, but its withdrawal will likely encourage other groups, or the formation of other groups, to fill the vacuum. No wish to mandate that future elections be non-partisan, for example, can prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights to the contrary.

A new dictate seems precisely what the city council is proposing. Rather than regrouping, reassessing, and gathering public input, leaders are rushing ahead under deadline pressure on proposed amendments that may or may not reflect the desires of current voters, never mind future ones.

What's more, it's not clear if any of the proposed amendments are either constitutional or enforceable. Can the City Council decide which groups of voters can or cannot publicly endorse political candidates? What if a party doesn't formally endorse, but does a mailing without a candidate's approval or knowledge? Would that candidate be thrown off the ballot anyway?

What about donations? Many city council and school board members have donated to political candidates. For example, Council Member Lawrence Webb, whose name is on the amendments, donated $100 to Democratic Delegate Charniele Herring's campaign in 2009. Under the amendments, would it be enough for Webb to swear off Democratic references on campaign literature? Or would he have to swear off all Democratic affiliations and donations for the duration of his term?

Just weeks after voters settled Falls Church's biggest electoral controversy, will the City Council open a new one? We may find out tonight.


Is Falls Church going in circles on transit?

Falls Church will discuss the possibility of building a streetcar on Tuesday. But this same city recently canceled its bus service, GEORGE, for lack of ridership. Why would a streetcar succeed where the bus failed?

GEORGE routes. Image from City of Falls Church.

City leaders now seem ready to up the ante on transit without facing the lessons of GEORGE. It didn't fail because Falls Church doesn't need transit; rather, its routing didn't efficiently serve the areas where the most likely riders live or work. Nor are city leaders willing to focus more development in those areas to build the ridership to support transit.

Falls Church ran the GEORGE bus from 2002-2010 in two long loops anchored at the East and West Falls Church Metro stations (neither of which is actually located within the boundaries of Falls Church). The winding paths looked more like scenic tour bus paths than quick transit routes.

For example, GEORGE riders rightly wondered why the trip from EFC to the State Theateronly a 15 minute walkinvolved a leisurely 14-minute loop through Falls Church neighborhoods. This was GEORGE's fatal flaw. Its routes were designed to serve political purposes.

GEORGE wasn't primarily designed to get the most commuters to Metro as fast as possible or to deliver customers to downtown businesses. Instead, it meandered down the streets of as many Falls Church homeowners as possible to convince them their tax dollars were being well spent, whether or not those streets wanted or needed transit.

One omission is particularly revealing. During peak hours, the EFC loop didn't go all the way to Wilson Boulevard, instead turning right on the residential road of Roosevelt Street. That forced an extra walk to the retail shops at Eden Center and the large apartment and condo buildings of The Madison and Roosevelt Towers, whose patrons and residents were GEORGE's ideal customers.

By targeting low-density, car-reliant neighborhoods, GEORGE was also competing against Falls Church's heavily-subsidized incentives to drive. Falls Church and its neighbors have made big investments of land and infrastructure to provide taxpayer-underwritten parking at both EFC and WFC. Why wait for and pay for the bus if there's free or discount parking waiting at the Metro stop?

Rather than facing up to GEORGE's issues and seeking to streamline service, city leaders pulled the plug.

"Nobody did the market research to see if it was viable," Charles Langalis, a member of the city's Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation told TBD last year. "It was recommended that the city go to work on a marketing plan, some promotional work for GEORGE, but that never materialized, either."

Now with neighboring Arlington moving forward with plans to build a streetcar down Columbia Pike, a discussion on Tuesday will ask whether Falls Church should make a similar move:

The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Falls Church will co-sponsor a luncheon discussion Tuesday November 15 on proposals for developing trolley-car transportation in the city. The event will occur from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm at the Italian Café, 7161 Lee Highway.

Panelists will include Steven Del Giudice, chief of the Arlington County Transportation Transit Bureau, Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder and former Falls Church City Council Member Dan Maller. Panelists will review basic information about trolley plans as well as routing options and potential benefits to the city.

Even though they're neighbors who even share a court system, Arlington and Falls Church couldn't be more different when it comes to development and transportation choices. Arlington's population has grown 36% since 1980 by focusing dense residential development around transit, and several new developments have already sprung up down Columbia Pike in advance of the streetcar.

But Falls Church's firm opposition to development has limited its population growth to just 18% since 1980. Even near its neighboring Metro stations, single-family homes and low buildings with large surface parking lots remain the dominant features. On Broad Street downtown, apartments are rare and one-floor retail dominates. Exactly where is there enough density for a trolley?

And even if new density were to spring up tomorrow, would Falls Church's single-family homeowners be willing to let their leaders invest tax dollars to help apartment and condo dwellers? After all, if Falls Church residents would rather sit alone in their cars, angry that traffic remains so bad but happy their tax dollars aren't being wasted on that stupid bus anymore, how are those same people going to be convinced to back a more expensive trolley?

It's loopy.


Nov. elections would strengthen Falls Church's democracy

An outlier among Virginia cities and counties, Falls Church holds its local elections in May, but a referendum on this November's ballot would move them to November starting in 2013.

Photo by rhall2ur on Flickr.

Most other Virginia communities hold their local elections in November, and turnout for November elections is typically about double that of May elections. The move would also save about $18,000 per cycle in electoral administrative costs.

So why are some opposing the referendum? A closer look at arguments against moving city elections to November reveals an undemocratic undertone.

The Falls Church League of Women Voters compiled a list of pros and cons of May and November elections. Oddly, though, November gets only 3 bullets to make its case while May gets 5. Here are a few of the arguments against moving the elections to November:

"Voters who don't pay attention to local issues decide close City races." Since when is the goal of election dates to manipulate the composition of the electorateespecially in a deliberate, undemocratic attempt to drive down turnout? Falls Church has a long history of longtime homeowners battling newer residents and this makes the May election date sound like a way to keep power in the hands of a select group. Considering how often we hear pundits bemoaning low voter turnout, it's bizarre that May elections supporters would present a smaller electorate as a feature, not a bug.

"Longer, more complex ballot." You know how many competitive races for elected office there are on my ballot in Falls Church this November? Zero. Del. Jim Scott and Commonwealth's Attorney candidate Theo Stamos are unopposed. And State Sen. Dick Saslaw faces only token opposition. Even if there were a number of competitive races, residents of the Washington, DC region are some of the most (over?)educated people in the world. Two more choices to make on the November ballot are going to make their heads explode?

"Elections more partisan." Falls Church cherishes its nonpartisan elections and groups like Citizens for a Better City continue to work to find nonpartisan solutions to city problems. But if today's voters don't share the anti-partisan passion of previous generations and want to use political affiliation to help inform their decisions, should the law be used as a tool to stop them? This is another attempt to justify manipulating election dates to affect election results.

"Accountability for incumbents who approve budget." The City Council sets the annual budget in April, so May elections give voters the chance for instant feedback. But can't people still hold incumbents accountable in November? As Mayor Robin Gardner told the Washington Post in 2009, "I find it troubling that some people believe our citizens aren't going to remember how people handled the budget situation six months later."

We shouldn't ask voters to go to the polls any more often than necessary. In 2012, some Virginia voters may be asked to go to the polls 4 times: Presidential and local primaries on March 6; local elections on May 1; other primaries including Congressional races on June 12; and the general election on November 6. From work conflicts to travel plans, elections are easy enough to miss. Why voluntarily add election fatigue as an additional turnout reducer, and at such a high cost to taxpayers to boot?

Concerns have also been raised that the referendum text is unnecessarily long and could confuse voters. Judge for yourself via the Falls Church League of Women Voters:

Should the City of Falls Church amend Section 3.01 of its Charter to hold elections of members of City Council in the month of November rather than the month of May by deleting the current Section 3.01 in its entirety and replacing it with the following language:

Sec. 3.01 Election of councilmembers

In the regular municipal election to be held on the first Tuesday in November, 2013, and every four (4) years thereafter, four (4) councilmembers shall be elected for terms of four (4) years each, such terms of office to begin on the first day of January, 2014, and end on the last day of December, 2017; succeeding terms shall begin on the first day of January following the year of election and end on the last day of December, four (4) years thereafter. In the regular municipal election to be held on the first Tuesday in November, 2015, and every four (4) years thereafter, three (3) councilmembers shall be elected for terms of four (4) years each, such terms of office to begin on the first day of January, 2016, and end on the last day of December, 2019; succeeding terms shall begin on the first day of January following the year of election and end on the last day of December four (4) years thereafter. Councilmembers serving on council who were elected in May, 2010, and those members elected in May, 2012, shall have their term of office shortened by six months but shall continue in office until their successors have been elected at the November general election and have been qualified to serve.

Yes _____ No _____

What do you think? Should Falls Church voters approve the referendum to move local elections to November?
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