Before spending his first two years in office trying to get metro to Woodbridge and Potomac Mills, Delegate Paul Nichols felt that his district near I-95 was getting "no respect" in the corridors of power.
"I think that it should have been done 10 or 20 years ago," he lamented, in a recent interview in his Woodbridge office:
"It is beyond belief that places like Shady Grove have gotten it out in Maryland, and now Ashburn in Loudon County is getting it 32 miles out. I mean, I understand Dulles, and that is a lot farther out than Woodbridge, from DC or the Pentagon, but its like we are standing in line . . . and one of the problems is that we have been standing in line. We are in the back somewhere and nobody is paying attention to us. Because here we sit with the 95 corridor, the third if not the second worst transportation in the Country, as a problem for commuters, and we're just getting no respect around here."
Nichols, a self-made lawyer from coal country in Pennsylvania, had heard all the negatives: "Well, we can't afford it and can't have it" or "It'll never happen." But unlike Rodney Dangerfield, Nichols decided, "You gotta make your own respect; you gotta start with a plan. . . . "
". . . you start to gather together the people that know things, how to get it done, and you start to put together a team. And so with the feasibility study underway, I took it upon myself to start working on our local congressman Gerry Connolly, who is our new Congressman, who was the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for the last five years while we were working on . . . Rail to Dulles. Not to mention that he was there ten years before that. So working on Gerry Connolly to come on board with this idea . . . he's fully involved. . . he's the leader of the team so to speak. Senator Warner, Mark Warner recently indicated that he is part of this, we've got the [Prince William County] Board of Supervisor members, and I'm trying to get more. So I am trying to assemble a team that we can get going in the right direction here. And I am also trying to get the word out to citizens because I need them behind it. You know, when I go door to door, over 80% of the people that I talk to . . . are excited about the idea. And the first comment out of their mouths is "I can't believe we don't already have it." You know, I hear that at so many doors. And its only because we haven't made the play."
"And so [in] my . . . first year I spent time meeting all the players involved: CSX, Norfolk-Southern, VDOT people, Kaine Administration people, basically all the players that would be involved with trains, Metro, whatever, trying to educate myself on what should be the approach. And in my second year I submitted a bill that would fund a feasibility study for bringing Metro to Prince William County. And with the help of Senator Colgan I got my bill rolled into a bill of his so that, there would be some appropriation and some planning and the committee would be formed, and that is in process right now. So we are actually in the feasibility stage in the legislature of bringing Metro to Prince William County."
Nichols, now running for re-election after a single term as delegate, recognized the history behind the woeful mass transit situation along I-95:
"40 some years ago, we opted out of Metro, because at that time our political people probably believed, you know, "if we don't build it, they won't come." Well, that doesn't work. If the jobs are here, they will come. They will walk down 95 to get to work. They are not too far from it right now, in terms of walking. They will want side walks if we keep going the way we are going. But people are going to come and they are going to come whether there are traffic problems or not because the jobs are here.
Look at the national average for unemployment right now. Look at Michigan where unemployment is 15%. And right here, from Arlington to Prince William, we flow between a 4% to a 5.4% unemployment. 5% is full employment; . . . And these are the worst of times. In the best of times, and I can remember back 4-5 years ago, gas station owners were complaining: they couldn't find anybody to work there. There's no high school kids anymore, and they couldn't hire anybody because everybody had jobs. And offices, replacing secretaries was a nightmare. So this is just a great employment opportunity area and people are going to come and if we don't plan for it, the situation is just going to continue to deteriorate."
And if traffic wasn't bad enough already, Nichols explained, the coming of BRAC [base realignment and closure] without Metro is likely to bring things to a standstill:
"Between 2011 and 2015 the grand plan is that as many as 20,000 jobs are going to be displaced from where they are at now to the 95/395 corridor. And nobody has any plan right now to do any structural changes to the road system. Holy Cow! And the facility that is being constructed down at Seminary Road, I hear, they are going to have space available for as many as 7500 jobs. And they are relocating that many jobs to that spot. Now some of those jobs going there probably live in Woodbridge or Stafford. Well, there is going to be people that are going to relocate. And they are only building 50% parking capability for that facility. So they are assuming that people are going to get there by some form of mass transit. Well, Metro doesn't go there, its not the end of the line for anything. So this is the kind of lack of planning that is going on there. And it just is going to be thrust upon us because the Army is going to do what they are going to do. . . . I think that there is even a lot of misunderstanding about these numbers: how many people are being relocated. Ft. Belvoir is now building facilities . . . it looks like they are going to build a new city. Quantico has got new facilities going up. Seminary Road has the new facilities going up. Newington has got a complete new facility for 5 to 7 thousand new people. It's incredible what is going on here, and no changes in the transportation plan.
These people are going to come to Woodbridge. And . . . we are all going to be on the road 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes longer because nothing is in the planning stage."
Nichols waxes expansively about the jobs, opportunity and quality of life Metro would bring to Prince William County:
"If we had an announcement that Metro is coming to Rt. 1, overnight -- and I mean in a few years, we would see a real transformation of the Rt. 1 corridor. It would start with employers coming there with office buildings, and what comes beyond that is hotels, the restaurants the higher end stores, effective residential places where people can walk to work. You'll see a place that when it is late you will want to go visit because restaurants are there, stores are there, a quality of life that will improve around here.
So its got not only a transit component to it, but also has an employment, economy component, and last but not least, its got a tax component/taxation component. You have taxes right now in PWC are heavily weighted towards individuals owning homes, because the base is about 86 % residential and 14 % commercial. Fairfax County, in comparison is say 26% commercial. Arlington is in the low 30%s. Their tax rates for residences is lower than Prince William County's because they have more of a share divided among the commercial side. Now their homes are valued higher, so I'm not saying that the taxes here are higher, but the tax rates are higher here. Anybody who says that we are going to attract serious employers to the eastern end of Prince William County - to what used to be the center of commerce in PWC is not telling it straight unless there is something that they are not telling me as a plan to get these companies here."
Nichols can envision the possibility of Metro coming to Prince William from the perspective of the practical businessman:
"I can stand on Rt. 1 and look around: I'm not bringing my 400 employee company there. But you tell me Metro is on its way or Metro is here. Now I've got water view from the 4th floor of my building, I can get on the Metro and get to the Pentagon in a short time. I can Metro to DC. My employees can live out here and they can have the benefit of city life by using the Metro. I'm all about that. . . .
But this Metro idea, that is something that is long, very much needed, and it will cause Rt. 1, to be the gem that it can be. So its got many different components to it. It is not just a transit solution, but it certainly is part of a transit solution."
Bringing a transit solution to PW County is "one of the things that got Nichols in to politics," and a key reason why he continues to seek respect for the I-95 corridor in "this process:"
"My son has a child so I've got a grandchild. My son is 29 and he is here in Woodbridge. . . . It might sound a little corny, but living here for 31 years, I wanted to do something for the community. So I went to Richmond with a plan and my plan involves improving the transportation issues around here. And making real solutions happen, instead of just talking about it and putting it into a mailing if you are running for office, and make it sound good."