Changes to Virginia’s gas tax and transit fees will eventually bring savings to Fairfax County bus riders facing financial hardships.

Customized Fairfax Connector bus passes will cut fares in half for low-income riders with a new program that might begin this coming summer, county staff told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 14).

The county plans to reduce fares for people with incomes up to 225% of the federal poverty level. That would put the eligibility cap around $29,000 for an individual or $59,625 for a family of four.

Residents of Fairfax County as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church will be eligible.

The county’s transportation staff is working with the Department of Family Services and Housing and Community Development to get users of those services the discounted passes because they’ve already had their income screened. The county could later expand its outreach to others who qualify.

“I think this is going to be a great, great program once we get it piloted,” Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said.

The county will receive $5.49 million in state funds to pilot the effort for three years as part of Virginia’s new Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which supports projects that reduce barriers for low-income travelers or improve connectivity in urban areas, such as by creating dedicated bus lanes.

The grant program was created as part of a transit funding overhaul approved by Virginia General Assembly in 2020. The legislation also raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon on July 1, 2020 and again on July 1, 2021.

With about 30,000 daily riders, Fairfax Connector is the largest local bus system in Northern Virginia. It already offers free rides to middle and high school students, and the county temporarily suspended fares for all riders for part of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

County staff are slated to update the board on the reduced fare effort this spring.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay asked staff to return with more information about the cost of implementing and administering the program compared to “the cost of just waiving fares, period,” noting that some neighboring localities are looking at eliminating fares.

“I support this needs-based one, given the size and complexity of ours,” McKay said. “But I do think we need to know what the administrative cost of this is and weigh that against a larger, maybe more aggressive way to provide transit as something that our residents in need can utilize.”

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Gas-powered leaf blower (via Cbaile19/Wikimedia Commons)

Fairfax County will phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in county operations.

Gas-powered leaf blowers are too noisy, dirty, and do not adhere to the newly-adopted Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, according to several county supervisors. Instead, officials are recommending the use of electric equipment, along with leaf and grasscycling.

Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw presented a joint board matter directing county staff to develop a plan for ending gas-powered leaf blower purchases at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The board approved the matter by a vote of 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity dissenting.

“The use of gas-powered leaf blowers presents a number of problems,” said Walkinshaw at the meeting. “Most prominently, their extreme and pentertraing noise levels and the highly toxic emissions from the out of date two stroke engines.”

Walkinshaw noted that the blowers operate at a noise level that could potentially cause hearing damage. He also mentioned that they are inefficient in terms of its output and emit 23 times the amount of carbon dioxide as a Ford pickup truck.

The board matter additionally calls for contractors that work for the county to begin transitioning away from this type of equipment, encouraged by incentives from the county.

“By taking an incentive-based approach to our procurement policies, we can jumpstart the transition from dirty and noisy gas-powered blowers,” wrote Walkinshaw in a statement. “This initiative sends a strong signal to landscaping contractors that now is the time to invest in cleaner equipment.”

However, specific incentives were not discussed and will be established “when staff reports back,” a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office wrote to FFXnow in an email.

As of yet, there’s no deadline established for the phase out.

During the meeting, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn noted that the county currently owns 133 gas-powered leaf blowers.

However, that number doesn’t include ones used by contractors who work for the county, a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office confirmed.

Alcron said he still hoped that this idea of banning gas blowers would be also adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, but stated that the county’s adoption was “clearly a step in the right direction.”

McKay acknowledged converting to an entirely electric fleet of blowers could be very expensive for some contractors, but hopes that the county phasing out this type of equipment is “leading by example.”

A cost estimate for phasing out this equipment isn’t available yet, but it’s expected to be minimal, according to Walkinshaw’s office.

Photo via Cbaile19/Wikimedia Commons

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Fairfax County is considering taxing disposable plastic bags (via Takoma Park/Flickr)

The disposable plastic bags that remain ubiquitous at grocery and convenience stores could soon be subject to a five-cent tax in Fairfax County.

Under an ordinance proposed by county staff, the tax would be imposed on grocery, convenience, and drugstore retailers, rather than their customers. There would be some exceptions, including:

  • Plastic bags designed for reuse
  • Bags exclusively used to wrap meat, produce, and other perishable food items to avoid damage or contamination
  • Bags used to carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning
  • Bags sold in packages for garbage or other kinds of waste disposal

Building off of legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in April 2020, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted on July 14 to direct staff to draft the ordinance, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 if adopted.

Proponents of the measure on the board argued that imposing a tax will incentivize individuals and retailers to use fewer disposable plastic bags, which generally wind up in landfills or as litter that can be harmful to the environment.

Revenue from the plastic bag tax could be used to fund environmental cleanup programs, education on reducing waste, pollution and litter mitigation programs, and reusable bags for food assistance benefit recipients, according to the state law.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the lone board member to oppose drafting the ordinance, took issue with the idea of introducing a new tax in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Past research also suggests paper bags and reusable cotton bags require more carbon emissions to manufacture than disposable plastic ones, so they need to be reused a lot to be more environmentally friendly.

The timing of the ordinance is important, since the state law lets retailers retain two cents of the imposed tax to offset the cost of changing their operations until Jan. 1, 2023, at which point the discount shrinks to just one cent.

Community members will get their first chance to weigh in on the proposed tax at a public hearing scheduled for the Board of Supervisors’ upcoming meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 14). Speakers can register to deliver testimony in person, by phone or video, or in writing.

Photo via Takoma Park/Flickr

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