Editorial: Critical Balance

With its vote in 2012 to commit the county to help pay for the extension of Metrorail to Ashburn and to share in the cost of operating the regional transit system, the Board of Supervisors signed on to a tremendous obligation.

Supporters of that action said the resulting economic and community benefits would be well worth it. Critics said county leaders were foolish to entangle the county with the bloated and poorly managed transit system and predicted taxpayers would carry the weight of the misstep for generations to come. Those positions haven’t changed in the ensuing years.

A key factor in signing on to the $2.7 billion project was premise that existing county residents and businesses would be insulated from the cost. Instead, those who chose to live and work along the rail line would foot the bill.

That is the root of the effort to revamp the development rules for land along the rail corridor where special real estate tax districts have been established to collect Loudoun’s share of Metro funding. This year’s budget anticipates $7.6 million in rail tax revenues. The will grow far greater once the trains start running in 2020.

While the county board is working to accelerate growth in the corridor so that tax revenues can keep pace with Loudoun’s funding obligations, it also must ensure that they aren’t opening the door to long-term problems that could prove far more costly.

The Silver Line plan supervisors reviewed this week called for adding 10,000 more residential units and some 2 million more square feet of commercial space than would be expected under the current development policies. County consultants say that mix should provide the financial boon needed for the tax district plan to succeed.

But there is a danger in assessing the Silver Line corridor in a vacuum, especially at a time when the county’s broader growth management rules are being reexamined. The Envision Loudoun exercise is expected to promote that same type of mixed-use development—in essence, more flexibility for residential construction—in other areas of the county as well, reflecting the market shift away from conventional office parks. Those allowances could dilute the demand needed for the Silver Line plan to meet its fiscal targets.

Supervisors know that getting balance right is critical. Their vote on Tuesday to silence plans to allow residential development closer to the Dulles Airport runways is one example of the challenges they face. There are other tough decisions ahead and long term prudence should continue to trump short term expediency as those issues are tackled.