Updates from Letty – September 6, 2019

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

And we’re off! Back to school, fall sports and activities, and the beginning of campaign season in Falls Church. Our first City Council work session after our summer recess was jam-packed – we certainly didn’t ease our way back into city business. From walkability improvements to a pilot of motorized scooters to a potential change in the bonding for the new high school, this week has something for everyone. And while you’re planning your fall calendars, here’s a good reminder to join the community next weekend at the annual Run for the Schools. As a result of your generous campaign contributions, I’m happy to share that my campaign can be one of the sponsors again this year.

Before I get to city business, I’d like to take the opportunity to make a personal plea (for those of you at my campaign kickoff last weekend, this is the part where I scrapped my remarks and went off script!) In light of the most recent mass shooting in Texas, I ask that in addition to following and voting in our local elections – pay attention to Virginia elections too. City Council positions are non-partisan, but I think we can all agree that it’s not partisan to say we don’t need any more thoughts and prayers and could use actual commonsense gun legislation and elected officials not bought by the NRA.

One of the more eye-opening parts of this City Council position has been learning how much our hands are tied at the local level – and therefore the importance of partnership with our state representatives. We can get caught up with what’s happening nationally, yet the reality is that the federal legislature has only passed 40 new bills this year vs nearly 1900 bills passed and became law in Virginia in 2019. So if you want to get something done, it often starts at the local and state level and you’re more likely to get results. What may be supported in Falls Church may be different than elsewhere in the Commonwealth, so having local control of various policies, such as gun control, is important. For example, I’d like for Falls Church to have the ability to keep our public buildings and facilities safe from guns, yet the General Assembly doesn’t allow us to do so. While we have supportive state representation, our delegate and senator can only do so much in the current make up of the General Assembly. If we want to see change, we need to step up.

All 40 seats in the Virginia Senate and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for re-election in November (this is a good summary of how races are looking). However, because it’s an “off-off” year with no gubernatorial or presidential races on the ballot, voter turnout is important. A non-partisan way you can help is to encourage voter registration, absentee voting, and get out the vote. And you can do that locally! This Sunday Sept 8th and next Sunday Sept 15th from 12 pm – 230 pm, you can join the League of Women Voters at Famille to write postcards to encourage voter registration.

While it goes without saying every week, I really would value hearing your thoughts this week, especially because the topics are not getting much coverage otherwise. Read on…

Thank you,

What Happened This Week:

(For new readers, this is what I consider the highlights from our City Council business this week + my personal thoughts, not meant to be exhaustive coverage. Our full agenda is always available.)

(1) Scooter Pilot Proposal

What? We started our long-awaited discussion on motorized scooters (shared mobility devices to be exact, which include motorized skateboards, scooters, bicycles, and electric bicycles). For a small city like ours and two Metro stations a mile away, scooters provide a good option for what planners call “first/last mile” connections. You may have seen them in action already, and many jurisdictions have pilot programs or rollouts underway, so there is a lot we can learn from others.

Why now? Virginia passed legislation this year that localities are not allowed to ban scooters, but may regulate them if localities implement an ordinance or a pilot program by the end of 2019. Otherwise, scooter companies can operate in that locality following the state rules only – which is not what we want.

Tell me about the pilot – sidewalks vs street? helmets? where do I park them? Currently, staff’s recommendation is that we conduct a 12 month pilot program with a limited amount of scooters allowed in Falls Church under certain parameters, based on learnings from our neighbors with programs underway already. At a high level: scooters would be allowed on the sidewalks with street usage encouraged. They should be parked in designated areas/corrals and not impeding pedestrian traffic on sidewalks. The scooters’ speeds would be limited to 10 mph or less. Riders have to be 14 years or age or older, with helmets encouraged for all and required for young riders. See pages 5 and 6 of the staff report for details of the program.

Letty’s Thoughts: In general, I’m supportive of scooters as it relates to our city’s long stated goal of “mobility for all modes”. Much like bikeshare, I think scooters are greener than cars, offer a good option for who would otherwise be driving short distances, encourage economic development by making it easier to get across town to patronize businesses, and connect us to the broader network across the region. However, we know that unregulated, they can be hazardous and a nuisance. As long as we implement sensible regulations (see above), learn from our neighbors and ourselves, I believe we should move forward with a pilot and then decide if there is a long term fit in Falls Church. I did ask that we consider two changes to the program: I’d like to restrict scooters from Rt 7 and Rt 29 streets due to the speeds and volume of traffic and I’d like to see the legal age for operating a commercial scooter to be 16, comparable to operating a car. I’d also like to see the revenues from the program be reinvested in transportation infrastructure and publicly available helmets. I want to hear from you before we finalize the pilot by the end of this year – what do you think?

(2) Walkability Improvements

We also discussed the next round of “spot improvements” and a very thorough set of recommendations from the CACT, our citizen board for all things transportation. For the first time, we dedicated $100K in this year’s budget to making small, but meaningful, walkability improvements such as connecting sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian signals, etc. Based on what would be feasible at $100K, Staff’s proposal includes connecting two small stretches of missing sidewalks –  S. Oak near Seaton Lane, near the newly acquired Fellows property, S. Maple, north of Pearson Square and the Tinner Hill at Lincoln building, and a handful of handicap accessible sidewalk ramps where there are none currently. If you have feedback or other suggestions, please let us know.

(3) GMHS Bond Update

As you recall from the financing plan for the new $120M new high school and the full capital improvements program (CIP) a total of appropriately $150M debt would be issued in 3 bond tranches. The first tranche of $22.5M occurred last summer, to pay for the upfront architecture and design phase of the new high school and construction of City Hall, with the two remaining tranches planned for this year ($76M) and next year ($50M). Staff now recommends combining tranches #2 and #3 into one issuance, primarily due to currently low interest rates and efficiencies in one issuance vs two.

Letty’s Thoughts: My initial reaction is that this proposal is quite different than the plan we developed and shared with the community prior to seeking referendum approval in 2017. While we want to be flexible and adapt to market conditions, I am concerned about taking on more debt all at once, sooner than planned – especially ahead of what most economists expect to be an impending recession (when interest rates historically drop). I will be giving this a lot more thought before our vote next week, and I’d welcome your input, especially for those who have been following the CIP financing plan the past few years.

(4) Other

TDR: We also learned about a new-to-us program called Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), which could help expand community assets like open space, floodplains, and historic structures and move density into more appropriate places. It was our first discussion learning about TDR and felt very different than our current approach. The next time we discuss TDR, it merits its own dedicated blog post.

Stormwater: In the City Manager’s report, we learned that following the July extreme flooding event, staff has been developing and prioritizing a list of smaller budget, lower effort projects to address specific neighborhood issues that can be funded from current operating budget and stormwater fees and will be shared with us in a few weeks. Longer term, bigger budget items will be discussed in time to inform the next budget season.

What’s Coming Up:

Campaign Info: If you’re interested in seeing campaign debates and learning about the other candidates, I’ve added the calendar of events this fall to my website here: https://www.lettyhardi.org/events/