Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Main Event: Fairfax v. Montgomery

By Marc Korman.

There has been a lot of attention given to the Office of Legislative Oversight’s “Comparative Data on Montgomery County and Fairfax County.” Of course, Adam wrote up a thorough series on it but even the mainstream media got into the fun. But I would like to highlight two areas that did not make the headlines.

As Robert McCartney said in the Washington Post:

[F]rom a national perspective, the two counties are virtually indistinguishable. Both are very prosperous, with excellent schools and public services. For example, out of more than 3,000 counties in the nation, per-capita personal income in Fairfax ranks 14th. Montgomery places 15th.
I repeat McCartney’s words because we should all remember we are dealing with two counties that are the cream of the crop. Residents of either jurisdiction are lucky to live where they do.

Still, some interesting differences emerge.


The report finds that in 2008 the average work commute for Montgomery County residents was 32.9 minutes and the average for Fairfax residents was 30.5 minutes. That has caused some excitement because Northern Virginia is known for its clogged roads, even more so than Montgomery County.

But that number does not just include people driving to work, it also includes people taking public transit. As the report explains, Montgomery County has 12 Metro stations, 11 MARC station, and 80 Ride-On bus routes. By comparison, Fairfax has 5 Metro station, 5 VRE stations, and 65 Fairfax Connector bus routes. The end result is that 15% of Montgomery County commuters take public transportation to work compared to just 9% of Fairfax County commuters.

Why does that matter? Because many commuters actually trade a shorter commute in the car for a longer commute on a bus or train. There are a few reasons: Transit can sometimes be cheaper; some people do so for environmental reasons; many people do not have their own vehicle; and it can be more pleasant to sit on a train or bus for a few extra minutes napping than sitting in traffic listening to talk radio. The fact that more people take transit and that transit services appear far stronger in Montgomery County is an important factor of quality of life that is being overlooked. I think most people would happily take a 2.4 minute longer commute over buying a car, emitting pollution, or fighting the traffic.

Public Health

Much more troubling for Montgomery County is the data on public health. Although Montgomery County compares favorably to Fairfax with much lower rates of heavy drinking, smoking, and asthma, the other measured health risks were less favorable. Montgomery County has more uninsured, more people not participating in physical activities, more obese, and more people with cardiovascular disease.

But what really stunned me is Montgomery County’s much higher rate of new HIV diagnoses. The rate of new HIV infection in Montgomery County per 100,000 people is 24.3, compared to just 8.9 in Fairfax.

By comparison, according to the AIDS charity AVERT, the national average is just 12.7 cases per 100,000 people. But Montgomery County is in line with Maryland’s high incidence rate of 24.8 people per 100,000, compared to Virginia’s 8.2 per 100,000. Unfortunately, Maryland is second only to New York (24.9 per 100,000) among states, but also trails DC (148.1 per 100,000) and the US Virgin Islands (31.4 per 100,000). Maryland’s HIV infection rate is deeply troubling.

I’m a Maryland guy through and through and love living in Montgomery County. The comparative report provides lots of interesting data and shows why Fairfax has grown, but I will take I-270, Normandie Farm, the Landmark Bethesda Movie Theater, and the Agricultural Reserve over Fairfax any day.