The race between incumbent Virginia state senator Barbara Favola and challenger Nicole Merlene, to represent parts of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun along the Potomac, is turning out to be a hard-fought one with residents of the area watching closely to make their choices.
The Greater Greater Washington Elections Committee posed questions to the candidates, along with other races in 10 Northern Virginia primary elections for General Assembly, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and Commonwealth's Attorney. You can read the responses below. For lack of any better way to order them, we post the responses in the order they are submitted.
The Elections Committee will be deciding whether to make endorsements in the primaries, which we'll do if there is a clear best candidate in our opinion. To figure that out, we'll look at the questionnaire responses, but also, we'd like to hear from you. Do you have context we should understand about some of these answers? Other information? You can give us your feedback using this form.
The primary is June 11. You can see all of the races, and the responses we've posted so far, at our 2019 primary election page.
How do you see the transportation network changing to deal with growth in the region and increased numbers of trips? Specifically, what role do you see for transit, bicycling, and walking in the transportation network?
Barbara Favola: I have always been a strong supporter of multi-modal transportation systems. As an Arlington County Board member, I promoted bicycle lanes, car sharing and the creation of the ART bus system to transport folks to Metro. As a Senator on the Senate Transportation Committee, I helped craft HB 2313 and advocate for a comprehensive transportation funding bill that applied a 1 cent additional sales tax in NoVA and Hampden Roads. Revenue from the sales tax is split 70% for regional projects and 30% goes back to localities. This local control over transportation revenues is already enabling jurisdictions to better link transportation infrastructure to land use policies. Going forward, I expect to see jurisdictions embrace more “smart growth” policies. These policies would require maximizing the usage of Metro and bus routes to promote a more diverse and more affordable housing stock, near job centers. Enabling folks to live where they work is the single most important principle in managing congestion and planning for future transportation networks.
Nicole Merlene: I don't own a car, so this issue is personal for me. I live one block from a Metro station and have built access to multimodal transportation this into my rent calculation - so I view access to viable multi-modal transportation not only an issue of getting you to and from any given location but also a way to address housing affordability. I envision a Virginia where every person has a variety of convenient modes of travel for every trip.
I know that car ownership is all but required in many of our neighborhoods, and that driving will always be some people's preference. Everyone, though, should have access to more than one way of getting around. I will work to make more Virginians able to choose the luxury of a car-free lifestyle. Investments in sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, bus-only lanes and intelligent curbside management are orders of magnitude cheaper than highway-widening projects. Often, they cost no more than a new layer of paint. Over time, these projects bring enormous returns on investment. They carry very little risk and can often be tested without commitment. Mayor Bowser's recent announcement that the Circulator will remain free at point-of-use is an inspiring example of an incremental program that was tested and found successful.
A major component of my platform involves making Metro more efficient and thus competitive with ride hailing and single occupancy driving. We must reimagine our bus routes and optimize them interjurisdictionally. Right now if you live off of a MetroRail service area and use MetroBus, your bus often takes you to a MetroRail stop rather than your ultimate destination. This required transfer makes riders endure long trip lengths that ultimately are often not worth it in price competition with ridesharing pools. DC is already working with companies like Streetsense to pull metadata from ride hailing companies - this information can and should be used to optimize our routes to bring people where they are proven to come and go from. Only about 20% of people that live in any given city/county also work there. We must re-orient ourselves to reflect that reality and bring people that live off our hardline MetroRails across jurisdictional lines with not only MetroBus but also local bus systems like ART, Fairfax Connector, and the Loudoun Commuter Bus. Ridership for buses are down in every jurisdiction and to remain a viable mode of transit for some of our more underserved communities we must adapt.
It is important too that as we expand public transportation access further into our suburbs, that the state works with local governments to ensure state highways and roads incorporate and connect other multi-modal options such as bike paths. There is often a lack of continuity between local and regional paths and are right now presented with a major opportunity to lead in the planning of a world class biking network across the entire northern Virginia region but there seems to be a lack of leadership on the state level doing so right now to coordinate this implementation.
If elected I will be a leading advocate for multi-modal transit.
Do you support adding transportation revenue to replace the loss to Northern Virginia from the 2017 Metro funding increase deal? If so, what new sources of revenue would you support and what types of projects would you like to see prioritized for the funding?
Barbara Favola: I do support adding additional transportation revenue to replace the loss to NoVA from the 2017 funding package. Although some additional transportation dollars have been allocated to fund METRO as a result of growth in State income tax revenue, I think it is critically important that the dollars come from a dedicated source of revenue. From a practical perspective, I would reintroduce legislation that applies taxes that had garnered a broad base of support in 2017. For example, a 1 percent increase in the TOT tax was a widely accepted approach because the tax is paid by visitors to the region who would not be deterred by the tax. The other tax discussed in 2017 was a 5% increase for every $100,000 of assessed value on the sale of homes, commonly referred to as a grantors tax. This tax would have been paid by folks selling their homes. Although realtors were not excited about the grantors tax, they acknowledged how important METRO is to the region and agreed to support the proposal. I expect it will be easier to pass the above mentioned taxes in a non-election year with a different party in the majority. When additional dedicated revenue streams become a reality, I would like to see more frequent trains during the rush hour time frames and easy access to METRO stops, especially for those stops in suburban areas.
Nicole Merlene: I support restoring full funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority through the Transient Occupancy and Grantors Taxes, and would consider additional sources of revenue that were structured in a progressive manner. Ultimately, though, transportation funding is in need of fundamental reform, and in the long term we must transition from a gasoline tax to a vehicle-miles-traveled tax with incentives for non-emitting vehicles.
Some of my favorite projects from the NVTA's current six-year program include the new Metro entrance in Crystal City and VRE improvements, BRT funding for Richmond Highway, and the NOVA Parks project to improve regional bike routes on the W&OD. In general, I prioritize projects that benefit more than a single mode of travel.
I do support highway tolling, but have serious concerns with our current dynamic tolling system that makes it difficult for those that choose to use those toll roads to plan their own budgets and incur unexpected costs. This will be particularly important as we transfer from only those not using HOV-2 to those not meeting HOV-3 in the coming years. While understanding the policy behind dynamic tolling, the practical impact is not feasible for working families. I would rather take the required average cost per trip and make a flat rate toll that families can plan for, and even increase that a few cents, over the current system.
Given the growth in jobs and population in the region, what legislation would you champion to support the provision of more affordable housing in your district? How would you address housing supply across the cost spectrum?
Barbara Favola: It is very exciting to see the region grow in population and job opportunities. To help facilitate this, I successfully sponsored a major reform bill (commonly referred to as the Proffer bill) to remove barriers that prohibited developers and local governments from discussing projects with more broadly defined benefits, such as affordable housing. Moreover, I have always advocated for additional funding to support the efforts of the Virginia Housing Development Authority. I would like to pursue the possibility of granting local governments the authority to implement “inclusionary zoning” policies. These bills have been introduced in the General Assembly but they have never been voted out of Committee. I am committed to moving forward with an inclusionary zoning bill in the future. Finally, I am the proud recipient of a “Hero” award from the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing and the Arlington Housing Corporation. These two non-profit groups have recognized my creative strategies for creating and preserving affordable housing at the local level. Some of these strategies included the use of bonus density, generous funding for a local affordable housing trust fund and the relaxation of parking ratios for affordable housing projects.
Nicole Merlene: Housing is at the top of my priority list! There are various avenues that the Commonwealth can take to help housing affordability particularly in the northern Virginia area.
We can make homeownership more accessible in the 31st District and beyond by reforming Virginia's Down Payment Assistance Program. Many people are paying about as much in rent as they would on a mortgage payment and have good credit, but are unable to save enough for a down payment. Eligibility right now is based on the DC metro area MSA median income. This is a much lower income than many local county’s median incomes. I would transfer the eligibility limits from the MSA to the jurisdiction of the home being purchased and include a local residency requirement with an exemption for local teachers and emergency personnel.
I also think that protecting renter’s rights also something that is forgotten when talking about rental affordability. Renters can be purged for thousands of dollars by unreasonable landlords for things ranging from wrongfully withholding security deposits (a recent story: after never having used a fireplace, landlord charging tenant to pay for fireplace flume cleaning), unreasonable fees for minor lease violations (a recent story: $3,000 charge for hanging a political banner from rental home), and a lack of protection for basic services to rentals of landlords that rent out less than 3 units (a recent story: landlord not providing heated water during winter for 3 months and charging an early lease termination). Often times the answer is “why not just sue?”. Unfortunately renters are not in a financial position to afford hiring a lawyer and it is often not worth the cost of hiring a lawyer so the renter is taken advantage of.
Making things even more difficult, we cling to a state-wide idea of affordability even though the cost of living in McLean is very different from the cost of living in Waynesboro. Local jurisdictions must be given the authority to determine their own living wage for hourly and tipped workers.
The best kind of affordable housing is the kind that comes at no expense to the taxpayer. I support policies like Fairfax County's Affordable / Workforce Dwelling Unit program that reward developers with bonus densities in exchange for a commitment to providing affordable units. I also support policies that help provide market-rate affordable residential options. For example, Arlington's effort to facilitate the construction of accessory dwelling units will provide much-needed options at lower prices, options that appeal to young professionals like myself, and with no cost to the county.
Just as we cannot discuss transportation without land use, we cannot discuss housing without transportation. “Drive 'till you qualify” is no longer economically sustainable. It is long past time for our policies to embrace a conception of cost burden that includes transportation expenses. At the state level, I am paying close attention to the innovative policy being discussed in California, where traffic congestion rivals northern Virginia. There, S.B. 50 proposes to ensure that walkable, affordable communities can be built near transit stations. Finally, I am very grateful to Greater Greater Washington for the opportunity to answer these questions. GGWash has done an amazing amount to advance the conversation about our region's built environment and keep us at the cutting edge of the national conversation. I would love to hear thoughts - or criticism! - from any contributors or readers. I hope to see you at one of our upcoming events!