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Federal Transportation Bill Encourages Regional Incorporation

July 4, 2012
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One of the strangest conversations a Fairfax resident often finds themselves in is “where do I live?” We’ve all grown accustomed to defining our regions one way or another, by school district, geographic designation, postal definitions, and in very rare cases in Northern Virginia, by township or city incorporation. I remember as a child I thought of myself as a Springfield resident, even though I attended Lake Braddock High School where 95% of students were from Burke. When my parents moved to a new house ten years ago, they suddenly became Burke residents, by moving 1 mile west. Of course anyone who has lived in Burke or Springfield knows just how nebulous these definitions are.

In the absence of a geographic definition, regions such as West Falls Church, Merrifield and Tysons Corner have developed out of the recognized towns/cities Falls Church, Vienna, and McLean. The reality is that almost all Fairfax County residents are living in unincorporated Fairfax County. Unfortunately this arrangement provides greater control to State planners and policy makers in Richmond, instead of local planners who could make decisions that best meet resident preferences.

Existing Benefits of Being an Incorporated City

  1. Incorporated Cities in Virginia typically receive between $10,000 and $17,000 per lane mile of road. Counties only receive approximately $6,000 per lane mile.
  2. Cities own their roads and therefore attain design and maintenance responsibilities. This allows cities greater control on how to spend operational funds and design efficiencies such as reduced lane width, traffic calming like low speed rumble strips and urban intersection designs that promote multi-modal usability. This can also be used to create revenue from those who use infrastructure within the city but do not live within the city through the use of toll zones and parking assessments, see the successful London Congestion Zone Charge, or through the sale of air rights to private development.
  3. Cities have the ability to excise a variance of local fees beyond real estate taxes, with the exception of income taxes.

New Benefits of Being an Incorporated City (Via Federal Transportation Bill)

  1. Attain 50% of formula federal funding per capita for a specific region in need of bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
  2. Attain a higher likelihood of attaining grants from federal sources due to a narrower definition of the municipality which would increase per capita improvement impacts. In other words, in a County of 1 million people, a project that only helps 50,000 might be seen as wasteful and without impact. In a City of 200,000 people, a project that helps the same number of people would be seen as important and wide reaching.
  3. Independent definition of a regional transit and transportation department which can attain funding from Federal sources for BRT and similar transit projects without going through the State. This will avoid competition with projects within other regions of the state that would ultimately be decided by the State and subject to political preferences.
Photo from Markn3Tel Flickr

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and it is odd that in this case the smart growth groups could be aligned with Republican leaders who want greater responsibility to be provided to more local jurisdictions. Unfortunately the GOP in Virginia wants to eat their cake and have it too by suggesting Counties take over their road funding and yet not take over the ownership of these roads, essentially granting Richmond tens of thousands of acres of free and operationally maintained land in the most expensive parts of the state. Incorporation sidesteps that restriction. Ironically in order to become incorporated within the State of Virginia you must be granted a charter by, who else, the State of Virginia.

The only way to be granted independence from these controls is to wait until a more empathetic leadership is in place in the Statehouse. Until then the state will continue to reap 30-40% of it’s tax revenue from Loudoun, Fairfax, and Arlington while returning 6 to 8% of state funds to those same jurisdictions.

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8 Responses to Federal Transportation Bill Encourages Regional Incorporation

  1. BeepBoop I am Human on July 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    That first paragraph is something that’s bugged me forever. I consider myself as living in Reston as it’s in my address. But I’m not, I’m just right outside the border of Reston in unincorporated Fairfax County. But wait! I also get told that I’m in Herndon for no good reason and on rare occasion get mail with my address saying Herndon! Herndon is like four miles from my house and I gotta drive through Reston to get there. It boggles my mind trying to think about it.

    • ws56 on July 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      The entirety of Reston IS unincorpated Fairfax County- u are probably confused by the set up of the Reston Association which is essentially a giant neighborhood- however still consisdered unincorporated Fairfax.

      • BeepBoop I am Human on July 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm

        Shoot, you are totes right I am confused when it comes to this incorporated/unincorporated mess. But I meant like… I’m not in Reston’s neighborhood, I don’t gotta deal with Reston and all that junk. But I’m close enough that I got the address of Reston and that’s cool. My big blow up was I also get told I’m in Herndon. Best Buy INSISTS I’m in Herndon even when I tell them to correct that they change it back. I’ll get the odd mail that’s addressed to me in Herndon. That sort of stuff and it drives me right bonkers.

    • Tysons Engineer on July 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      BeepBoop you should join as a user, you’ve made previous comments, you might as well put them to good use towards winning a free dinner on us.


  2. highlander45 on August 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Interesting, i dont know though- with all the planning and time that the FCEDA and FFXCO planning authorities have put into redoing Tysons, they would surely mobilize an army if need be to keep the area from slipping into its own domain.It’s a long shot- i think Reston has tried this and it failed a few years back if i’m not mistaken.

    • Tysons Engineer on August 2, 2012 at 9:21 pm

      I am suggesting the County become incorporated as a whole. If you look at its size and population (1.2 million), its strikingly similar to Charlotte North Carolina, minus the defined urban uptown (as they call it there) which is what Tysons would be. Charlotte is much bigger than the skyscraper downtown that it possesses, again similar to the remainder of Fairfax County.

      • highlander45 on August 2, 2012 at 10:53 pm

        Fairfax is moreso constructed around different communities however- that being Herndon, Reston, Mclean, Springfield and so on that have their own local signifigances and identities-patching them into a disconnected city dosnt bring these areas together to create a regional identity. Not to mention there already is a Fairfax City. Fairfax County is still very much a county suburban environment. It is unlike the Hampton Road Area in which existing real incorporated cities competed with land from the insignificant counties they incorporated from (Virginia Beach from Princess Annes and so on) unlike Tysons Corner,while maybe somewhat of an office hub, dosnt have that leverage. Redeveloping land to be more “city-like” aka intense urban dosn;t make it deserving of city status.

        • Tysons Engineer on August 3, 2012 at 8:58 am

          Thats a valid point and certainly the county is disconnected between the suburban residential regions and the economic/job zones. But if you view Mecklenburg County (Charlottes incorporated region) you see that there is similar disconnection between some of the subdivision zones and the uptown commercial business district but the entire is still incorporated under the umbrella of Charlotte which provides benefits for tax revenue towards the city which it wouldnt attain if it were unincorporated regions. If only the “city portion” of Charlotte were quantified the population would be less than the 1 million residents per the census.
          Really the incorporation is not to say that all of fairfax should be redeveloped, but it is a way of retaining control of the counties tax revenue that instead a large portion of goes to the state which only returns back between 19-25 cents on every dollar to this region in order to help pay for other regions of the state which dont make as much tax revenue. Incorporated cities are able to determine 50% of federal funds based on the new transportation bill. This means when the state receives federal transportation funding, they can not avoid providing some of it to incorporated regions and will have to provide at a minimum 50% of the prorata share (a far better funding than we currently attain)

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