Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

From the local to state to federal level it finally feels like there is momentum to make an impact on climate change. In order to meet our collective goals, it is incumbent upon us all to take responsibility for these aspirations in our everyday actions.

Arlington released bold energy goals in the 2019 Community Energy Plan. The county resolved to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2025 for government operations, achieve 100% community renewable electricity by 2035, and become carbon neutral by 2050.

In 2020, Governor Northam signed the Clean Economy Act (sponsored by Arlington’s Rip Sullivan) that directed sweeping environmental standards. It set a path to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, required Dominion Energy to supply 30% of their power from renewables by 2030 and close all carbon-emitting power plants by 2045, made it “in the public interest” for generation of that 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind and 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar, expanded net metering for solar credits on Dominion electric bills, required expanded energy storage capacity for solar by Dominion, among many more provisions.

Today on Earth Day, President Biden pledged to cut US emissions of greenhouse gasses in half by 2030 — a goal twice as ambitious as what President Obama originally agreed to upon the initial signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. A significant amount of funding will be found in the upcoming Infrastructure Bill for improvements to the grid, public transportation, and other items.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. Today’s post was guest written by Nicholas Beirne.

Whitlow’s oh Whitlow’s
We will miss you so
Booths from St. Patrick’s
That beautiful woodwork show

A storied place for the townie Arlington crew
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving
Whatever will we do

A friendly staff that always had your back
Thank you for sneaking us the coffee
Giving us our evening comeback

Crab legs & lobster mac
A classic birthday brunch
That alone keeps us coming back

The beach bar and tiki rooftop
Lines so long it’ll make your heart stop

Did you really want to play the ring game
Or were you just bored with your crew

Soja and Footwerk – our local tried and true
Those vibes that make your feet hurt
And DFMOs to make your Sundays hurt

The smokers tent —
Was it legal?
Now we’ll never know

Whitlow’s oh Whitlow’s
We will miss you so
This is an ode to Whitlow’s
Ever sad to see you go.

Nicholas Beirne is a lifelong Arlington resident. His best Whitlow’s memory: Ryan Zimmerman buying him a drink on his 21st birthday, on Thanksgiving eve, oh so long ago. Whitlow’s Crew, you will be missed.

Mar. 30, 2020 – A cyclist passes Whitlow’s in Clarendon, which was closed at the time due to the pandemic (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)
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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

A majority of Arlington’s affordable apartments are not built into typical new apartment or condo buildings, but rather separated into their own building complexes.

Over the course of decades this has created segregated housing in Arlington. Although the dynamic is improving, the equation and incentive structure at the heart of this issue must change.

In 2006 a group of Arlington developers lobbied and successfully codified in the Virginia General Assembly an equation that disincentivizes developers from building affordable units in their market rate buildings. This equation alternatively incentivizes developers to pay a cash contribution to a housing trust fund — in Arlington this is called the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHIF) — instead of building affordable units in normal market rate apartment or condo buildings.

Arlington ordinance provisions (image via Arlington Community Foundation). Source: Arlington Community Foundation: Status Report on Affordable Housing Ordinance Review, November 2020.

According to multiple developers in an Arlington Community Foundation review it is significantly cheaper to simply contribute cash to AHIF than build affordable units in their new buildings.

With the understanding that it is cheaper for developers to contribute to AHIF using this equation than building on site affordable units in mind, the following regional comparison makes the state policy decision to zero-out and force Arlington to use this equation even more starkly disturbing.

Developers are currently paying a cash payment equal to less than 5% of on site units instead of the 6.25%-12.5% of on-site affordable housing units that are typical in our surrounding jurisdictions. This is compounded with the policy conundrum that our affordable units are not in the more “desirable” parcels that developers are building market rate units, like is done in other jurisdictions, and thus creating a segregated housing situation. A double whammy.

I implore our state legislators to reevaluate the unfair discrimination against Arlington in Virginia’s affordable housing ordinance laws. Our County Board is just as capable as any other jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Virginia to make ordinances that make sense for our community and should not be unfairly zeroed out to abide by this obscure rule.

Nicole Merlene grew up in Arlington County and has been a civic leader in both policy and political arenas. She has been an Economic Development and Tenant-Landlord Commissioner; Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee, Pentagon City Planning Study, Rosslyn Transportation Study, and Vision Zero member; Arlington County Civic Federation and Rosslyn Civic Association Board Member. In 2019 she sought the Democratic nomination for the 31st District of the Virginia State Senate. Professionally Nicole is an Economic Development Specialist where she works to attract businesses to the region. She lives in an apartment with her dog Riley and enjoys running and painting.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

TW: suicide, mania.

Arlington has begun an effort to improve mental health services in our community with dollars attached to these priorities. Taking this initial first step is significant, but we still have miles to go. Next Tuesday you can learn more about this topic at the Civic Federation monthly meeting.

Movement on mental health services all started with the overwhelming support for the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. Thousands marched, hundreds of first time speakers came to County Board hearings, and policy change was demanded. The County Board convened and the County Manager appointed a “Police Practices Group” (PPG) to recommend policy changes.

This working group narrowed their scope to four major sections: mental health crisis intervention, police civilian review board, traffic enforcement, and alternative dispute resolution. For purposes of this analysis I will focus on the mental health aspect of the recommendation.

Current State of Play

If an Arlingtonian is facing a crisis situation such as a manic episode, suicidal thoughts, or substance abuse, the response from Arlington is predominantly from the police. There is limited co-response with both a clinician and responding police officer. While it is impressive that ¾ of Arlington’s police force is “Crisis Intervention Trained” (CIT), police acknowledged during this process that their presence with flashing lights and uniforms immediately escalates a crisis situation even with the best trained officers.

There is little that is done for those in crisis after the initial police point of contact. In a situation where you experience a physical medical emergency, like a car crash, there are follow up services that are needed for treatment. Ultimately there are not currently adequate follow up services available for those in mental emergency situations.

With little support from federal or state agencies, we are left to our own devices to create a solution. This issue is too great to continue to push off a response. We have a number of best practice models to look at in other local jurisdictions and our police practices group recommendations put together a great target implementation framework.

What’s Budgeted for Improvements

In the County Manager’s budget there is a proposed $574,000 dedicated to supporting Arlington’s Crisis Intervention Center (CIC) and a medically equipped vehicle dedicated to crisis transit.

Additional staffing will be helpful to taking the CIC closer to being able to have a 24/7 response capacity, since crises takes place at all hours of the day, and provides services from a team of individuals who are adequately trained to respond to these specific types of medical emergencies.

One of those positions will be an emergency services clinician that presumably would be an additional co-responder to emergency calls, bringing our response team to a whopping two people dedicated to respond to the entire county’s mental health related calls around-the-clock.

The additional vehicle would hopefully eliminate the anxiety of flashing lights, from what have otherwise been a police or ambulance transit vehicle, while maintaining the medically necessary materials during transport time.

What’s Next

Some implementation items are process and coordination oriented, while others will require long-term funding commitments. What is included in the Manager’s Budget is able to address some of the important short-term funding oriented goals. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do though that is effectively summarized in the PPG Recommendation.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington is beginning to wrap up an important long-term plan for Arlington street safety: Vision Zero.

In July 2019 the County Board resolved to the concept that no death or severe injury in Arlington County streets or trails is acceptable. To achieve these ideals staff and community members have joined the Vision Zero Network to create a comprehensive plan based on analysis of traffic collisions in the county.

Vision Zero recommendations have been made in engineering, enforcement, education, and data analysis. Focus has also been paid to ensuring no one is disproportionately affected by crashes and creating a culture of safety so every member of our community feels responsible for contributing to the safety of our transportation system.

Last year I was able to join this working group and see how it has incorporated some of the best parts of urban planning and also exposed some of the systemic issues that exist in many transportation related planning initiatives.

Two of the most important and impressive parts of Vision Zero has been their data driven evaluation and the partnerships with the many agencies that make up our transportation network. One hurdle to this process, and many other transportation related processes, is a complex network of agencies that are required to be involved in the implementation of these improvements.

The data collected for Vision Zero is vast and detailed. The High Injury Network captures about 80% of all serious or fatal crashes and is able to zero in on just 7% of the roadways in the county. This is further broken down by transportation mode, and hot spot locations.

As shown in the map, a significant amount of these incidents occur on state owned (VDOT) roadways such as Arlington Boulevard, Glebe Road, Lee Highway, I-395 and I-66. If improvements need to be made to any of these areas there is a more onerous process that is needed to alter the landscape of these roads.

In order to receive funding for a project on these roads local jurisdictions must apply to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA). Recently this has been in six year program plans that are conducted every other year. Recently there has also been a decrease in total NVTA funds available from the state legislature.

All of this makes it more likely that local jurisdictions will apply for major funding projects that will have a big impact on our regional transportation network and less likely that localities will apply for smaller projects or improvements that would help with safety concerns like crosswalk improvements.

In my opinion it would be helpful for NVTA to create a small separate fund with an expedited process for smaller scale projects that are needed more immediately for safety improvements.

Overall the Vision Zero program will be a significant help in creating regular system-wide checks for street safety and reducing serious injury or death in our community. The last opportunity for feedback closes this Sunday February 28th and I encourage everyone to provide your own thoughts on the process.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This year every campaign finance reform bill is expected to die in the General Assembly. That is extremely problematic considering we aren’t even aiming for federal standards.

Federally, candidate committees have a $2,800 limit on donations from individuals per election or $5,600 if there is a primary and general election that year, and corporations are banned from contributing at all. Nonaffiliated PACs (thanks to Citizens United) can accept $5,000 from individuals per year and corporations are able to contribute.

In Virginia we do not have any contribution limits. This legislative session bill were introduced that aimed for a floor below the bare minimum and committees with Democratic majorities still killed these reform including:

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions over $20,000

YEAS — Adam Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D). 

NAYS — Janet Howell (D – Arlington/Fairfax), Lionell Spruill (D), John Bell (D), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

Senate: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

YEAS– Ebbin (D – Arlington/Alexandria), Deeds (D), McClellan (D), Boysko (D), Bell (D).

NAYS — Howell (D-Arlington/Fairfax), Spruill (D), Surovell (D), Mason (D), Vogel (R), Reeves (R), Ruff (R), Peake (R), McDougle (R), Dunnavant (R).

House: Prohibit campaign contributions from public utilities

KILL THE BILL — Reid (D), Sickles (D), Bloxom (R), Runion (R).

VOTE ON THE BILL — Rasoul (D), Mundon King (D).

If you look at a breakdown of the latest campaign contributions you will see a correlation between large corporate donations and how our local legislators voted. Read More

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

While Virginia prohibits municipalities from banning dogs based on breed alone, this discrimination still persists in housing.

In Arlington where 70% of homes are in multi-unit buildings, and 60% rent, this law is essentially rendered useless for a majority of our population.

Virginia Code states that “No canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous/vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed, nor is the ownership of a particular breed of canine or canine crossbreed prohibited.”

While it is reasonable to ban animals that have been deemed dangerous or vicious, and ban dogs or animals all together, it seems unreasonable to allow for certain breeds of animals but not others — particularly when this practice is banned at the municipal level. This has an adverse effect on certain breeds that are at high risk for euthanasia, such as cross-breeds of pitbull terriers, and the living situation of their owners.

For a real world example of how flexibility on breed discrimination in housing plays out here in Arlington, I will use an experience that I went through three years ago when I had a roommate with a pitbull terrier. My experience in search of housing with a pitbull was what initially spurred my advocacy for renters rights.

At the time we could not find a single two bedroom apartment in a building that would allow for pitbull related breeds. We had to move into a single family household that was run by someone I would classify as a slumlord. At the time, small landlords were exempt for basic services such as providing running or hot water, which were not working 30% of the time we were living in this home. Since the sweeping improvements provided by the 2019 Tenant Landlord law that is now illegal. Having a breed restricted dog is one of many factors that discrimination plays in people moving into questionable living situations.

Locally, Prince George’s County, Maryland banned pitbull related breeds in an effort to decrease serious dog bites in the county. In their own Vicious Animal Task Force it was found that this ban did not reduce biting incidents from pitbulls to any degree of significance. Despite this, in Prince George’s 900 pitbulls are impounded a year because of this law and 80% of them are euthanized.

While I am glad that Virginia is one of 22 states to have breed specific legislation (BSL) to ban breed discrimination, it is unhelpful that this does not extend to housing. I would encourage the Board to look at options of extending our state requirement of banning breed specific discrimination to housing units, if not prohibited by Dillon Rule.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This week Metro released a devastating budget for FY 2022 in order to balance a $500 million deficit.

In more ways than one this pandemic has continued to exacerbate systemic problems that already exist in our society, and Metro’s budget is one of those evident examples. There are multiple reasons why even with federal stimulus that we will continue to have budget issues for the foreseeable future.

During the pandemic, service cuts already have made it difficult for essential workers. With these proposed “doomsday” cuts to service, those workers will be driven further off the ledge of stability. Shift workers that have hours being cut are having to pay for a $30 round trip Uber versus a $6 Metro trip, and that is unsustainable to continue through July 2022.

Metro has been the core of Arlington’s economic growth over the past several decades and served as a regional connector to our neighbors for commuting and leisure. Ensuring its continued success in not just maintaining, but expanding service to Dulles, is essential for us in providing regional housing supply, attracting businesses and jobs that generate revenues at the state and local level, and providing reliable and environmentally friendly transit throughout the region.

Changing workforce patterns

Even after a vaccine is widely distributed, we are likely to see a measurable shift in commuting patterns. It has been made clear that work from home is here to stay. In Congressional hearings, GSA directives, and indicators from government contractors, we have seen concrete intention to continue expanded work from home policies.

Some $763 million in Metro revenues come from ridership and parking. Twenty-two percent of the D.C. region works for the government and that number is even higher if you count government contractors. We cannot expect that revenue to continue in perpetuity. We need a long term plan to rely less on ridership revenue.

Living on a prayer

“We are going to need federal funding. Eventually we will need to change our tax system to provide more funding, but this year is an election year so that won’t happen. We did increase funding a few years ago and we’re really proud of that.”

The above is a summarized response from our state legislative leadership when I asked about the legislature’s planned response to these devastating cuts at George Mason University’s NOVA Leadership Dinner.

First, Virginia is not paying our fair share of Metro funding as it is. With the new stops, we will account for 31% of Metro stops, but will be paying only 27% of state/local contributions. If we were paying our fair share, we would be paying $73 million more annually to Metro. We cannot rest on our laurels and pat ourselves on the back for taking action a few years back.

Second, it is unfortunate that the reasoning for being unable to make changes to our tax code is that it is an election year. It is election year every year in Virginia. Public transportation is a bipartisanly popular topic and should be considered an asset to any campaign, not a deficit. This cannot be used as an excuse to not get things done.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Hope is an action. It is fairly useless unless you put in the work. Our democracy depends on participation.

If you believe in stability for our democracy; believe that we are in a climate crisis; that healthcare is a human right; love is love; science matters; and that we must regain global leadership… vote for Joe Biden because our hope for a better future depends on it.

Voting is just your first step of action. Here are other ways to help make a difference in this election and in our collective hope for a better future.

Phone bank and text voters in swing states

I preface this with a reminder about Senator Mark Warner’s last election in 2014 where he was up in the polls by almost 10 points and on election day only edged out his opponent Ed Gillespie by 16,000 votes — so still vote here in Virginia like your life depends on it.

That being said, Virginia is not the heated battle ground it used to be. Two easy ways to make an impact in this election from your home is to participate in phone and text banking in swing states.

Swing states this election include but are not limited to: Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Minnesota.

Four actions that have been highlighted to me as important in this last stretch by someone that participates on national strategy calls are: 1) North Carolina phone banking; 2) North Carolina ballot curing (reach voters who had their ballots rejected to cure the issue so their vote counts); 3) Florida text banking; and 4) Pennsylvania text banking.

Join local groups that support your policy goals

National politics can be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like you are just another note in the Intranet Quorum (IQ) congressional database unless you have some sort of connection.

What is fantastic about local government is that you can make a tangible difference on almost every issue you care about at the local level. Instead of waiting sometimes decades for things to get done in Congress, get it done here locally or at a state level.

Arlington Commissions

There are over 50 commissions in Arlington. Whatever your passion is, there is bound to be a group of devoted Arlington citizens who are developing policy proposals for the county to implement. Right now there are 15 commission openings and you can apply for them easily online here.

Open Door Hours

Every Monday you can schedule a time to talk to your county board members. If you have spoken at a county board meeting you will notice there is simply not enough time for board members to respond to everyone. For an actual dialogue with your elected officials, office hours can really help you move the ball on policies that are a priority to you.

Have a conversation in-person

It’s easy to repost a meme or share an article on Facebook. Unfortunately it has become hard to have a civil conversation face to face with people that you happen to disagree with.

Locally, I have participated in two organizations that do a great job of bringing people with differing perspectives together that I would recommend.

Make America Dinner Again is hosted by a traditionally conservative Koch brothers organization. Former columnist Matt Hurtt put together one of these conversations pre-COVID that I attended and they now have online options. It was great because I very rarely am able to find a large group of conservatives, libertarians, moderates, liberals, and socialists that would actually come together for civil conversation.

Building Bridges is an organization founded by former Democratic candidate for county board, Vivek Patil. This group will go to rural areas of Virginia and have conversations with local politicians and influencers in those regions to bridge the urban-rural divide in Virginia. They are incredibly good at emphasizing empathy for both sides of the coin during these conversations.

VOTE

Make your plan to vote. Now.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Have you or your kid attended All American Sports Camp, Patriot Girls Basketball Camp, Orange Line Sports Camp, or Mojo Volleyball Camp?

Representatives from all of these organizations showed up to a recent Sports Commission meeting to voice their concerns over the new way summer camps will be administered, their ability to pay hourly employees, and new cost burdens on families.

Summary of changes

1) When you pay for a camp, that money will now go to the county instead of the camp. Arlington does not need to pay camps for their services until 45 days after camp finishes. This creates a serious cash flow problem for camps that could make them unable to feasibly operate.

As an employer, campes are required to pay hourly workers biweekly according to Virginia state law, and camps often last 5 days. This means after camp finishes, camps are legally required to pay their employees 9 days later, but the county does not need to pay the camps for another 45 days. Staff even stated that their contractor for this service is not known for speed on disbursements. This is a cash flow problem that effectively eliminates camp operators from effectively being able to run their businesses.

As conveyed by those at the Commission meeting, oftentimes these camps are run by teachers. These are not year-round businesses like normal county contractors. One camp administrator estimates their camp costs at around $100,000, which they would not have the ability to pay without having the registration revenue.

2) Increased fees given for the county will lead to increased costs to campers. Arlington now requires 30% of all revenues to be given to the county. This has increased from 20% in just three years.

Patriots Girls Basketball camp founder, Kip Davis, said, “In the 25 years I’ve hosted this camp I have increased my cost by just $55. I don’t make a ton of money doing this camp. I do it for the kids. We want to make sure all kids can afford to go to camp, see friends, and give parents a little break. This dramatic increase in cost plus us not being in control of funds will cause camp prices to noticeably increase, which is counter to my goal of camp affordability.”

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What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At the beginning of this month, Metro took a step into the 21st Century by allowing SmarTrip to be added to Apple Wallets.

A Google spokesperson also said they plan to roll out a Google Pay version later this year. This move has significant short term benefits, some improvements that are needed to improve equity, and in the long term will provide a significant boost to the efficiency of our entire bus system.

What will be improved right now

Customers save money: Do you even know the number of times you have lost your plastic SmarTrip? I have lost hundreds of dollars from misplaced SmarTrip cards over the years. When you lose your card you lose both the money you put on the card and the cost of the new plastic card. While there is an online option to save your SmarTrip number and connect employer benefits, many do not utilize this option. Having payment functions on your phone will save Metro customers big in the long run. 

Bus efficiency: To increase funds on SmarTrip cards for bus riders, riders usually have to do so while in line to get on the bus. Every time a bus rider has to add money to their card it averages 20 seconds of time per person, slowing down the bus route significantly. As fellow columnist, Chris Slatt, has mentioned, a quarter of bus travel time is spent boarding, and if you can halve that time you have sped up bus route speed by 12%. Allowing riders to update payment on their phone will increase bus speeds on every route in the county.

How tap-and-go tech can be more equitable 

Android capabilities: The average cost of an Android is lower than an iPhone, and ensuring that an Android rollout is successful will be key to achieving equity. While Google has stated they would like to roll out by the end of the year, Metro has said “it is coming,” and that definition is sometimes loosely defined by Metro. As a community we should hold feet to the fire to get a concrete timeline on when this capability will be rolled out.

Disability, UPass, & other reduced fare cards transferable funds: Reduced fare cards are not able to be used with this function yet. Only full fare and Senior SmarTrip cards are able to be transferred at this time. The reason we give people with disabilities, students, and others reduced fares is to have a more equitable transportation system. Ensuring these cardholders can transfer their funds is an obvious oversight that I hope can be addressed in a timely fashion.

Long-term infrastructure improvements

Columbia Pike & Route 1 off-board fare collection for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): Off-board fare collection is a significant part of how to create time-saving BRT. In 2014 off-board fare collection had an anticipated 20 hours of time savings per day just along Columbia Pike from off-board fare collection.

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