RICHMOND — Nowhere in Virginia do drivers forfeit more hours to traffic jams than on the freeways and byways of Washington, D.C.'s teeming suburbs and sprawling exurbs. Commuters stew in gridlocked traffic for hours every day.
So why is it tougher in Northern Virginia than anyplace in Virginia to get a transportation project off the drawing boards, much less into service?
Getting consensus on any regional project to alleviate the choked interstate highways, secondary roads and heavily traveled local roads is fraught with conflict among rival localities, the local governments that dictate land use and the state, which bankrolls most nearly all road construction in Virginia.
Then there is the constant conflict between insatiable developers and builders on one hand, and environmentalists and smart-growth advocates on the other. Developers have far too much political money and muscle to lose many of those battles.
The problem worsens by the year as Richmond struggles to comprehend the issues involved.
"You have multiple jurisdictions and you have multiple concepts" about fixing transportation problems, said Sean Connaughton, the former chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and now Virginia's secretary of transportation.
"Sometimes it seems like the Tower of Babel, and to make any major fix you have to cross jurisdictional bounds and each jurisdiction has its own culture and its own needs and its own potential solutions," Mr. Connaughton said.
Decades of explosive population growth in northern Virginia turned expressways into parking lots, and statewide and local officials have fretted over it for years.
"You risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg," said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, who has known the aggravation firsthand as an Alexandria resident and whose efforts to address the problem as governor frustrated him even more.
The lucrative jobs of Washington and the corporate office-tower canyons of Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County are the economic engine of Virginia. Average per-capita income in those localities is slightly more than double the state average, and they account for 36 percent of all the state's non-farm jobs. And as the state's population pushed from 7 million to nearly 8 million over the past decade, the bulk settled in northern Virginia, drawn by such growing fields as technology, defense and government contracting and — since Sept. 11, 2001 — homeland security.
"You've got businesses there that don't necessarily have to stay there, and if they decide it's gotten too bad for them, they can just pick up and leave," said Mr. Warner, a Democrat.
Yet one of the worst policy defeats of his term came in 2002 when he backed regional referendums in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to authorize sales tax increases that would pay for projects to ease road congestion. Voters overwhelmingly defeated it, despite Republican support from then-Sen. John W. Warner (no relation).
In 2007, legislation was passed to set up appointed regional authorities that could levy taxes for transportation improvements in those regions. The Virginia Supreme Court quickly and unanimously struck it down as unconstitutional.
Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine called two special legislative sessions during his administration to consider proposals to generate new revenue for roads, rails and urban transit statewide and particularly for the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Both times, he was rebuffed.
This year, Gov. Bob McDonnell used a combination of cash found in an independent Virginia Department of Transportation audit plus unused state bonding authority to free up more than $3 billion for road construction and maintenance. It's the largest investment Virginia investment in transportation in decades, but it's a one-time shot and a fraction of the cash necessary just in Northern Virginia to ease its rush-hour nightmares.
"I don't think Richmond gets Northern Virginia and I don't think traditional transportation engineers understand or even support the new science of land use and transportation," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth.
For years, he has appealed — largely in vain — to the General Assembly, local governments, state secretaries of transportation and the Commonwealth Transportation Board to consider solutions other than new stretches of blacktop for easing northern Virginia's transportation crisis.
"With population growth, that's absolutely essential," Mr. Schwartz said. "In places where transit — especially rail transit — are not appropriate, the things that we can do is change the design of future communities and adjust the design of current communities so that they have a greater mix of uses, so that there are options to walk or bike to schools or the store or the library."
But there's big money in building new homes with big, grassy yards well away from the madding urban streets.
Without roads, those developments can't be built. So Virginia's real estate, construction and development industry pays dearly to protect itself in Richmond.
Since 2001, no industry sector other than political parties and political action committees themselves has come close to matching the nearly $64 million that real estate, construction and developers gave legislative and statewide candidates, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Even during the real estate and construction slump since 2008, the sector has retained its top ranking.