Lawmakers Fearful of Traffic-Weary Voters' Wrath

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

RICHMOND, Jan. 6 -- Voter anger about traffic congestion caused by unchecked growth has bedeviled officials in Northern Virginia for decades. Now, that rage has pervaded the state Capitol, where nervous lawmakers are attempting to take action before the November elections.

Many supervisors in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties have been ousted by voters for failing to slow growth. But state delegates and senators have rarely been held accountable by their constituents for the region's surging population and the inevitable consequences, both good and bad.

Now, though, rapid growth has become entangled in the bitter legislative debate over the state's traffic problem. And lawmakers fear Virginians will punish anyone who refuses to vote to slow sprawl during the 2007 General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday.

Voters "are so angry about traffic, they'll strike out at your mama if they think she's got anything to do with it," said John H. Foote, a land-use lawyer and former county attorney in Prince William.

The result is a slew of legislation from Republicans and Democrats, including House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), aimed at reducing traffic congestion by better managing growth.

"The Republican political consultants and the pollsters are telling politicians at every level that a pro-growth vote is a death knell," Foote said. "It's moved right up the chain of command."

Howell has introduced a package of bills that would force local governments to take over the maintenance of new neighborhood streets in exchange for money and other resources the state now spends on building and maintaining roads. Howell's proposals would also give local governments flexibility to concentrate growth in built-up, urban areas where the transportation system has matured.

Kaine said Thursday that he will again fight to give local governments permission from the state to stop growth if an area's roads are clogged. He submitted legislation to do that last year, making good on a promise from his 2005 campaign that helped him carry Northern Virginia. But the bill was defeated after pressure from home builders.

This year could be different, said Mike Toalson, chief lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Virginia. He said he will fight the proposal again but acknowledged that the psychological distance lawmakers used to feel from local growth politics is shrinking quickly.

"I recognize that, and I'm very fearful of it," he said. The housing industry "could be the victim of a political quick fix designed to convince voters that we are a solution to the transportation crisis."

Toalson and his allies in the development community will argue that slow-growth proposals raise housing prices and force builders to put up houses in far-flung counties, adding to sprawl. That forces longer commutes and makes traffic even worse, he said.

Toalson's efforts will be centered on the Senate Committee on Local Government and the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. That's where most growth-control legislation has gone in past years, only to be killed.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company