The Virginia Senate’s Democratic leader, Richard “Dick” Saslaw, faces two primary challengers in the 35th District, which includes Fairfax, Falls Church, and a small bit of Alexandria: Yasmine Taeb and new entrant Karen Torrent.
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.
We have responses from Saslaw and Torrent. We made multiple attempts to get responses Taeb, who asked for several extensions but did not ultimately respond to the questionnaire.
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?
Dick Saslaw: Not only is the Northern VA region home to millions of people but its proximity to the federal government is also a magnet for commuters from along all major transportation corridors. Economic opportunity coupled with world class education systems have been the stimulus for the growth that localities struggle to keep up with when zoning, planning budgets or meeting the needs of a very diverse community. It should come as no surprise that our aging infrastructure is often at the root of the most contentious debates in the General Assembly.
In 2013 we passed the Transportation Act (HB2313) which was a serious revisit of revenue sources and allocations of funding transportation. Those revisions came after two plus decades of maintaining the status quo established under Governor Baliles. The bill included eliminating a flat $0.175 per gallon of gas tax, replacing it with a percentage based tax of 3.5% for gasoline and 6% for diesel fuel; It established a $64 annual registration fee on hybrid electric motor vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles. It raised the sales and use tax across the commonwealth. The measure also addressed online retail sales as well as enhanced taxes and fees for Planning Districts with transit ridership. There were additional elements to this initiative which I supported as a strategic investment to meet the needs of this region.
We cannot pave our way out of gridlock. We must have a trans- modal approach. METRO carries hundreds of thousands of passengers weekly. The safety of those riders and the quality of service were in desperate repair after 50 years of usage. During the 2018 General Assembly, I introduced legislation (SB 856) specifically addressing funding as it relates to Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). This was a regional bill that incorporated that calculated the regional motor fuels tax, authorized the issuance of $50 million in bonds for a federal match and required DC and Maryland to adopt similar actions to raise revenues for WMATA. Unfortunately, Delegate Tim Hugo diverted funds previously earmarked for other projects, which hurt localities in Northern Virginia. This needs to be fixed and I believe it will be successfully addressed in the 2020 General Assembly.
As we encourage better planning we can point to successful development like Tysons Corner, which for many can be a walkable community, has the new Silver Line moving. Several of my colleagues continue to work for better use of trials for bicyclists. I recently worked on getting crosswalks and sidewalks for a residential community adjacent to a bus stop. The overhaul of Metro also included more efficient bus routes and service hours for riders. We have also looked at other rail systems that are used by commuters heading to work.
Finally, the Private Public Partnership Act has seen vast improvements for travel time on the Beltway. Additionally, we are now working on HOT LANES from Stafford to the DC with a completion date by 2020. Interstate 66 will also be widened to move more people along that corridor. Commuting does affect one’s quality of life and time spent with family.
Karen Torrent: Moving around in this District is miserable for drivers, commuters, bikers and pedestrians — and is only expected to worsen with additional development and population growth. Some schools have gone so far as to warn their students not to bike to school, as it is too dangerous. As a cyclist I can attest to that. In addition, to stressing everyone out and being dangerous, massive congestion hurts the economy in terms of wasted time and fuel, and the environment, as more greenhouse gases are emitted.
As I stated in the Senate candidate forum “We cannot pave our way out of this problem.” Instead we must focus on shifting to more public transportation options and creating more walkable and bikeable communities and become a more multi- modal community. But as I have learned in my 15 years of working on transportation policy, in order to successfully get people out of their cars, public transportation options must be reliable and on-time, affordable and connect with other modes, such as METRO, VRE and bus routes.
Voters in the District want to see improvements to gridlock now. So alternative like light- rail which is not only costly but also time consuming are not the immediate answer. In the short term we could look to deploy strategic bus service that runs with greater regularity and with limited stops.
For example we could utilize Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in our most congested corridors such as Route 50, Route 7, Lee Highway and Gallows Road. This is working in Richmond. We could also add limited route electric bus services similar to the privately operated D.C. Circular, to connect with Tysons with Falls Church, Seven Corners and Baileys etc. that run every 10 minutes and only cost a dollar. Finally, adding commuter bus service that begins at Dunn Loring, West Falls Church and East Falls Church and goes directly into DC on Route 66 at rush hour would alleviate some of the passenger volume on Metro and provide passengers with a seat and Internet for the commute. Metro passengers that commute from Dunn Loring and Falls Church stations in variably have to stand for the 30-minute trip into DC.
The other short term actions we can do is to widen and in some cases actually lay sidewalk along our streets to allow for more pedestrian friendly and bike access. Permitting and dealing with the differing state and local jurisdictions can and should be streamlined to allow for timely construction of sidewalks.
Finally, our seniors need to have better transportation alternatives. Instituting a senior voucher program with ride share providers like UBER and/or Lift with bonuses for using electric vehicles could be one alternative that could be instituted in near term.
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?
Dick Saslaw: Simply put, the answer is YES. Virginia’s gas tax is half the national average. It needs to be raised, but that’s just one component. Raising the recording fee 5 cents per hundred dollars and increasing the hotel occupancy tax from 2% to 3% generates $45 million in additional revenue per year in Northern Virginia that can be used for additional projects.
As for projects that should receive funding, I, for the most part, support the VA Smart Scale that is currently in place to fund the right kinds of transportation projects throughout the Commonwealth. I believe that the Transportation Commission, the Transportation Alliance and the Transportation Authority should continue their due diligence and work with a view toward the future. It is short sighted to be reactive. A vision for tomorrow and what this region will look like in 20 years should be the bones for that future footprint.
Karen Torrent: Absolutely. Federal funding from Congress has been and will continue to be limited in the coming years, so Virginia must come up with funding mechanisms to make the needed investments in public transit and infrastructure. Federal funding to the states will continue to decline as the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax that has not been raised since 1993 cannot pay for today’s costs of keeping our roads in a state of good repair and drivers are buying less gas or not moving to electric cars. Sadly even under the current federal system only 3 cents out of the 18.4 goes to fund mass transit and passenger rail. Today Virginia allocates only about 3.7% of its transportation revenue to public transportation and passenger rail.
Virginia does have a process in - the SMART SCALE program that empowers localities to submit proposed projects based on objective measures including safety, accessibility, environmental impact and economic-development benefits, and allocates 45 percent of a project’s score to its potential congestion mitigation. The result is localities are working collaboratively and thoughtfully to select projects that will bring the most benefit to their areas. This program is in the beginning stages so time will tell if actually works. But again the bad news is that there is limited funding for 404 project applications. The projects submitted by localities requesting funding amounts to $8.5 billion but only $1 billion is available.
In the long term, Virginia should consider moving to a vehicle miles traveled tax, or VMT, that imposes charges based on the amount of miles driven on state roads. Assessing a charge based on mileage instead of gasoline consumed would link consumers’ choices more closely to the costs they impose, including congestion, emission and pavement damage. The state of Oregon has a VMT pilot program charging volunteers participants a fee of 1.7 cents per mile. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are currently investigating how VMT would work in their states.
Finally, Virginia should use the millions of dollars it is receiving under the USDOJ Volkswagen Diesel Emissions settlement to prioritize the purchase of electric buses. The Volkswagen settlement requires that transportation expenditures must go to eliminating diesel pollution. The Northam Administration is using a small percentage of these funds to putting state sponsored electric vehicle chargers. However, this is a bit of a one-off program that only affects a very limited number of consumers that actually have electric vehicles.
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?
Dick Saslaw: Virginia has an overall unemployment rate of 2.9%. Northern VA is the economic engine for the rest of the Commonwealth. BRAC brought a new awareness of why we should be developing the New Virginia Economy. Since the Great Recession of 2008, we have been laser focused on ensuring work opportunities for Virginians from all walks of life. We are making strategic investments in economic development, education and work force development. Employers have the confidence to bring their businesses to VA where strategic investments are happening.
This growing economy brings with it some legitimate concerns. Affordable housing is an issue the localities are thoughtfully addressing. I believe people should have the right to live near their place of work (which also helps with transportation congestion). We must be alert to the high paying jobs coming into the region but also cognizant of the support service providers to these businesses and their employees. Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria are strategically planning for the future. Balancing the real estate tax rate against dedicated funds for affordable housing is imperative.
The Commonwealth is also taking measures that I have supported to ensure affordable housing in the budget. The VA Housing Trust Fund exists to create and preserve affordable housing as well as address homelessness. In 2019 with a floor amendment, Senate Democrats were successful in increasing the VA Housing Trust Fund to $7million. For the biennial budget, $5.5 million has been allocated in each year to fund activities through the VA Housing Trust Fund. At least 80% is to be used for short, medium, and long-term loans to reduce the cost of homeownership and rental housing. I supported these measures and fought for their passage.
There is no magic pill for this conundrum but rest assured when we are looking at economic development, it is with a careful eye on economic opportunity for working families, living wages, education and skill training as well as the ability to live near one’s work.
Karen Torrent: In talking to voters in the 35 th district affordable housing is the number one issue of concern especially for young professionals and young families. Rents in NOVA are rising and wage increases are not keeping pace. But millennials in NOVA, many of who began working on the heels of the Great Recession in 2008, has been worst hit. Since the recession, developers have largely abandoned constructing housing within the middle class range. For developers, building middle class units do not offer the attraction of either the government tax incentives that encourage companies to invest in low-income affordable housing or the high margins they can get from costlier homes.
Policy prescriptions include working with the private sector to offer incentives for refurbishing dilapidated properties or in the case of NOVA, unused office space for middle-income families. We should also work with Amazon and the other tech giants to commit to workforce housing. Finally, we will also need to consider how to address the high costs of land and restrictive zoning laws that drive developers to construct higher priced housing.
Update: Karen Torrent, who had not seen our previous messages, sent in her responses after this article first ran. They are now included.