Arlington officials could again head to Richmond with hat in hand early next year, hoping to win authority to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.
But at least one legislator who supports the effort thinks waiting until 2020 may be the better move.
The renaming proposal has made it into the County Board’s 2019 draft legislative package, which upon adoption will guide the county government’s lobbying efforts in Richmond. The county is asking to rename the roadway as “Richmond Highway,” as recently was done by the Alexandria City Council for the stretch of the north-south arterial that runs through its borders.
(Why could Alexandria rename its stretch of the road but Arlington needs to ask permission from the General Assembly? That was the ruling of the state attorney general’s office, which decided that cities have more power than counties on the matter of road names.)
Whether the General Assembly, not particularly known for its admiration for Arlington’s local government, will go along with the request remains to be seen. The upcoming General Assembly session will run from Jan. 9 to Feb. 23, with Republicans holding narrow majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates.
The closest a renaming effort came to success in the 2018 legislative session was a bill patroned by state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), which would have allowed localities to rename state roadways in their jurisdictions, so long as the roads had been in existence for at least five decades. The Senate Committee on Transportation voted a party-line 7-6 to kill the proposal, leaving naming (and renaming) of major roads largely in the hands of the General Assembly and Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Favola, who served on the County Board before being elected in 2011 to the Senate, said it might be smarter politics to hold off on any push for renaming in the upcoming session and see whether Democrats win control of the legislature next November.
“The decision-makers in the General Assembly have not changed since 2018,” she told the Sun Gazette. “A better approach would be to wait until 2020. At that time, both bodies – House of Delegates and state Senate – will be returning after having stood for election. I expect the voters may choose to refresh those bodies in the 2019 elections.”
Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. Route 1) received its name in the 1920s from the General Assembly, which had been lobbied by United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the Confederate president.
The draft Arlington legislative package for 2019 does not ask for power to rename another major route – Lee Highway (U.S. Route 29) – which some activists have sought. County officials may have decided that while there isn’t necessarily a lot of love for Mississippi native Jefferson Davis in the Old Dominion, trying to take on the General Assembly over the iconic Robert E. Lee would be unwise.
But damage already may have been done, in a sense, as the Arlington School Board’s plan to rename Washington-Lee High School has garnered notice and furrowed brows across the commonwealth, according to those who interact frequently with downstate legislators. It gives legislators pre-disposed to reflexively be uncharitable to Arlington another cause for complaint.
The County Board is slated to adopt its 2019 legislative-priorities package on Dec. 15. A date has not yet been set for the board’s annual meeting with the seven-member legislative delegation.
While having to defer to state officials on the names of most major roadways, Arlington does control the naming of most county secondary roads. In 2012, the County Board changed the name of a separate portion of Jefferson Davis Highway in Crystal City to “Long Bridge Drive.” That decision had less to do with controversy over Davis and more to do with spotlighting development of Long Bridge Park.