In a scenario familiar to everyone, a new building is erected down the street, traffic queus at nearby intersections lengthen, accidents are more frequent, air and noise pollution increase, pedestrians feel less safe and elected officials tell residents they are working on the problems, often after its too late to intervene effectively. So what, then, should we do to prevent this situation from repeating itself and eroding the quality of life in our neighborhoods?
According to Vice Mayor Kerry Donley in a recent opinion piece, the answer is to invest in projects like the Purple Line (a metro extension so costly no one is sure how to pay for it) and the Intercounty Connector (a road opposed by many community groups for environmental and other reasons).
To pay for such improvements, the city wants to adopt a special transportation tax that will add as much as 12.5 cents per $100 of assessed value to the real estate bill of all commercial property owners, many of whom own small businesses. This additional money is needed, he says, to spur on growth that is desirable from a strategic perspective, and to prevent Alexandria from lagging behind Arlington and Fairfax, which have implemented this tax. But, is this growth really good for Alexandria? And what will it cost us to prevent, or at least mitigate, harmful side effects?
Despite the estimated $500 million price tag, a new Metro station is being planned for Potomac Yard. Arlington meanwhile has decided to spend about $140 million to build a transit system along Route 1 that will end at the Alexandria line at Four Mile Run and may be a much more cost-effective way of reducing congestion along this already overburdened commuter corridor. These sorts of issues should be resolved before large new development projects are approved, not afterwards.
I spoke out against a rezoning plan for the Mark Winkler site in 1995 because I thought it would harm the Winkler Nature Preserve (a development pawn since its creation) and in 2004, as a member of city council, I tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion that would have required an in-depth study of the traffic problems caused by development there. I say this with regret, not glee.
So Im not surprised that city officials did not object (and actually encouraged) the construction of enormous BRAC buildings beside the same quasi-public park, in a part of town that cannot handle the current traffic. Why should Alexandrias taxpayers have to pay millions now for transportation improvements to mitigate the damage from this planning nightmare? It also illustrates what seems to be at play in Alexandria: attracting more development is more important that protecting our quality of life.
Alexandria has compiled a list of transportation improvements that it wants to fund with this new tax revenue, which will be used to borrow more money and increase our debt. Supporters argue that the money will attract more business and generate more tax revenue and result in lower residential property taxes. But new growth hardly ever lowers property taxes, and transportation improvements should improve our quality of life and be cost-effective. The King Street trolley, for example, benefits us all by reducing traffic and helping small business owners thrive in Old Town, an historic landmark that should also be a beneficiary of this greener tourism.
All taxpayers pay to run the DASH bus system, and I think thats equitable, but Im not sure its fair to add a special tax to every small business (or a specific group of homeowners) to raise money to reduce major traffic problems created by big development projects. However, what all these cases above show is that we need to fundamentally change the way in which we plan for growth. Plans should include a better working relationship with the community and a more rigorous financial plan to ensure that money we spend is used wisely. As it now stands, Alexandria, unlike Arlington, doesnt appear capable of analyzing and implementing anything but the simplest transportation improvements.
I think many Alexandrians wonder if this new tax and others like it, and the development that it spawns, will actually make our city more livable. These decisions are complex and difficult, but answering that question in a fair, thoughtful and analytical manner is essential. Thats more important than a new tax and new revenue.
The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria.