Fairfax County Mulling Becoming Fairfax City
A sign from the already-existing City of Fairfax. Flickr photo by teejayhanton.

A sign from the already-existing City of Fairfax. Flickr photo by teejayhanton.

In what might be today’s biggest regional transportation news or might be an empty piece of political posturing, Fairfax County is considering becoming a city.

According to the Post, the goal behind becoming a city would be to control local funding in order to better pay for basic road maintenance. On the surface, that’s O.K. news for sustainable transportation advocates. It’s not as if County Executive Anthony Griffin is seeking autonomy to put in more transit or bike and pedestrian paths. Even so, it’s good that Fairfax wants to spend its money on upkeep given that the Commonwealth of Virginia came in 39th of 50 in terms of spending its stimulus money on new construction rather than repairs. So autonomy would be a net gain in terms of transportation spending.

Even better is that becoming a city would be self-reinforcing in terms of making good transportation decisions. I think it’s safe to say that at each moment in the foreseeable future, the City of Fairfax (the new one—it’ll be fun to watch them negotiate a name!) will make better decisions on transportation than the VDOT. As you get more transit users, more pedestrians and more cyclists, you will get more local demand for that kind of infrastructure, and the divide between Fairfax policy and VDOT policy will only widen.

To my mind, though, the most important impact of becoming a city rather than a county is the symbolic power of that act. It’s impossible to quantify, but the mayor of what would be the region’s largest city (around 1 million residents versus the District’s 600,000) is going to think of himself more urbanly than the county executive of the same area would. Those who move to the largest city in Virginia will think of that choice as something different, even if they live in the same house or apartment they otherwise would have. Perceptions matter; symbols matter.

The Post quotes Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, as saying “Fifty, 60 years ago . . . we were one of the largest producers of dairy products. Now we are a mostly suburban community with some urbanizing areas. The city label more accurately describes what Fairfax is.” I’m not sure that as of today that’s true. But I’m quite certain that the city label will help Fairfax become a city proper.

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