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Tuesday’s Elections Prove There’s No Such Thing as "Purple Virginia"

Northern Virginia is going a different way from the rest of the state, particularly on density and transportation.
Tuesday’s Elections Prove There’s No Such Thing as "Purple Virginia"
Interstate 66 was one of the biggest issues in Northern Virginia's elections. Photograph by Flickr user Joe Wolf.

The results of Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, leaving the commonwealth with a term-limited Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, are surely fodder for hacks who want to pump up the notions of bipartisanship and political enemies working together. Surely, Governor Terry McAuliffe will have to find some way to negotiate his desires for a Medicaid expansion and limits on gun ownership with a General Assembly run by GOP members from the southern and western parts of the state.

“That makes collaboration and good-faith negotiation—oriented toward crafting sound policy, rather than partisan gain—even more vital to lawmakers’ ability to represent Virginians’ interests in the coming legislative session,” reads a morning-after editorial in the Virginian-Pilot in Virginia Beach.

But stripping away the fact that scuffling with a Republican legislature might distract McAuliffe from his top priority for 2016—delivering Virginia’s electoral votes to his friend Hillary Rodham Clinton—Tuesday’s results were actually pretty good for progressive interests in the DC suburbs. Two retiring members of the Arlington County Board were replaced by Democrats, leaving independent John Vihstadt as the body’s singular minority; Loudoun County voters elected a Democratic county chairwoman and two Democrats to a board that was previously all-Republican; and voters in a suburban state Senate district rejected a candidate who made his campaign about opposing proposed tolls on Interstate 66.

Even if McAuliffe’s hopes for expanding low-income healthcare access and imposing some level of gun control are dashed next year by rural conservatives, Northern Virginia separated itself further from the rest of the commonwealth, particularly with respect to density and transportation.

“I think that indeed you are seeing sustained support for smart growth,” says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarther Growth, which advocates for greater implementation of transit and dense, urban development.

Arlington’s newest board members, Christian Dorsey and Katie Kristol, both ran on pro-transit platforms, perhaps giving the county a chance to pull away from the brink of becoming a soulless suburb. The Fairfax County Board’s incumbents mostly swept on Tuesday, leaving in power a group that has favored increased infrastructure spending in the county’s commercial corridors, especially on Metro and, most recently, Capital Bikeshare, which is coming to Reston.

Even Alexandria’s mayoral race might not be so bad for pro-growth idealists. Alison Silberberg, who favors “thoughtful, appropriate” projects—a blow to the developers seeking to rebuild the city’s waterfront as well as advocates of multi-modal transport—beat four-term incumbent Bill Euille‘s write-in campaign. But Alexandria’s other incumbent council members were re-elected, and Silberberg’s biggest selling point was the rather broad promise of improving the city government’s community engagement. “That appears to be an endorsement in the direction Alexandria was going, balancing growth and historic preservation,” Schwartz says.

But the most encouraging result for the smart-growth set in Fairfax County might be in the state Senate race in which Jeremy McPike beat Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish. The Republican Parrish bombarded airwaves with ads stating his rigid opposition to a McAuliffe proposal to implement tolls I-66 during rush hours to relieve congestion on the typically clogged highway. While McPike also said he opposed the toll plan, Parrish’s message didn’t stick with voters; other local Democratic legislators who were hit with similar anti-toll attacks also won.

“Trying to do complicated transportation policy in an election year isn’t easy,” Schwartz says. “When you look at the options for 66 inside the Beltway, [the Virginia Department of Transportation] has come up with the best option for that corridor. It’s not an option to widen that corridor from Ballston in.”

The VDOT plan currently proposes collecting tolls from vehicles with fewer than three occupants traveling in peak directions during rush hours, with some of the revenue being used to pay for Metro and other alternative modes of transportation. Schwartz says simply widening the highway would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, result in the destruciton of numerous communities bordering the road, and funnel even more traffic onto DC roads that cannot handle the additional volume. While the toll proposal will almost certainly be tweaked many times, Schwartz says implementing it inside the Beltway could set a strong example for the outer suburbs, where officials favor building additional highway lanes, which are expensive and almost always result in more congestion by encouraging more cars to get on the road, a phenomenon transportation planners call “induced demand.”

But the outer suburbs might be taking steps that would surprise inner-Beltway eggheads. Two of the Democrats elected last night in Loudoun County are black, including County Chairwoman-elect Phyllis Randall; previously, the county’s current leadership is made up entirely of white Republicans. In Sterling, Koran Saines, a human-resources manager with Aramark, knocked off long-time incumbent Eugene Delgaudio, who is known best for his often toxic right-wing agitprop. Saines ran on expanding public transportation and building more transit-oriented real-estate developments; Delgaudio once called the Silver Line “a crazy circumstance in which the general public is going to get raped or not get raped.”

“I think what you have here is as much a reflection of changing demographics as anything else,” Schwartz says. “It reflects the diversity that is Loudoun today.”

To be sure, Democratic wins in Northern Virginia do not guarantee tolls on I-66, a wholesale expansion of express bus lines and Capital Bikeshare stations, or a solid timeline for Metro’s extenstion to Dulles. Many facets of those issues will continue to be negotiated in Richmond, which remains under the control of exurban and rural delegates far from Washington and who openly loathe McAuliffe and Clinton. But the results suggest that Northern Virginia continues to tilt toward greater adoption of alternative modes of transportation like rail and cycling, denser commercial and residential development particularly near transit hubs, and the will to pay for it.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.