Growth and Its Discontents

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

THE CHOKING aggravation and daily hassle of suburban traffic and sprawl have fed surges of anti-growth activism and protest votes for years, and there are signs that Northern Virginia, or parts of it, may be on the verge of another such cycle. Politicians of both parties have positioned themselves defensively -- witness meddling by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) with the development planned around the Vienna Metro station and, more recently, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's proposals to tie land-use decisions more closely to available road and railway capacity. It's no sin for elected officials to feel their constituents' pulse and pain. The risk is that by pandering to the anti-growth camp's understandable frustrations, they will raise expectations unrealistically, or do more harm than good.

Of the two instances, Mr. Davis's intervention is the more counterproductive. Like it or not, this region is booming and is projected to grow by 2 million people over the next 25 years. They'll have to live somewhere, and among the most logical places are in new neighborhoods around Metro stations, where mass transit can lure more people out of their cars. Shunting them off to the exurbs, as Mr. Davis seems to favor, will hardly solve traffic problems in the inner suburbs -- the outliers will still drive in and through the older neighborhoods, and sprawl will win the day. By using his influence over Metro's federal funding to scale back a high-rise housing project around the Vienna station, Mr. Davis has won points with a slice of his electorate but struck a blow against sensible regional land use. He has deemed the building plan there too dense. But with so many more people on their way -- and an economy that is likely to need them -- where would he rather they live?

Mr. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor, is equally attuned to Northern Virginia's rising aggravation with clogged roads. His idea, tailor-made to appeal to fed-up voters in exurbs such as Loudoun and Prince William counties, sounds a lot more far-reaching than Mr. Davis's, but in fact it would have little or no short- to medium-term impact. He would require that requests for rezoning be accompanied by a traffic impact statement and that the state's transportation department study how much development would be generated by new roads. He would also allow local governments to deny rezonings when the surrounding road network is deemed insufficient.

Mr. Kaine's ideas have a common-sense ring to them -- of course elected officials and planners should, and in many cases do, consider whether new residents or workers will be adequately served by existing roads and highways. But in the fastest-growing counties, so many new homes are already approved and in the pipeline that construction is unlikely to subside appreciably for years, even if localities are given new legislative tools to slow future growth and the state courts go along with them; that's why the impact of his proposals would be limited. But let's say some future officeholders in Loudoun or Prince William, empowered by Mr. Kaine, do block new neighborhoods because they fear too many cars jamming too little asphalt. Then what? The likelihood is more sprawl -- that is, new neighborhoods sprouting up even farther west and south, bringing just as much new traffic flowing in through Loudoun and Prince William.

Swift growth is the likely scenario here for years to come; government can shape it but not stop it. The next governor's priority must be to seek fresh revenue for new roads, lest the state's entire transportation budget be consumed by maintenance projects by the end of this decade. New planning tools and powers at the county level may be useful in the long term, but only in conjunction with a concerted effort to accommodate the traffic that already exists and the traffic that is clearly coming -- whether elected officials like it or not.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company