Ask an elected official or a business executive in metropolitan Washington to cite the area's most pressing problem and chances are he or she will say it's transportation.

Probably no other regional issue has attracted as much attention from the private and public sectors over the past several months. In ad-hoc groups and in major conferences sponsored by business and government, there is a continuing desperate search for solutions to what have been conveniently lumped together as "transportation problems."

Invariably, the proposed solutions have been of the quick-fix variety, brimming with the predictable buzzwords and phrases: Do something about the trucks on the Beltway. Build an outer Beltway. Build a bypass in Northern Virginia. Increase the gasoline tax. Build a commuter rail to Dulles International Airport. Create a new system to pay for road construction.

There is a transportation problem, to be sure. But the traffic congestion on major arteries and the gridlock on suburban feeder roads are manifestations of a greater problem.

Congested roads and highways notwithstanding, suburban Washington has an economic development problem.

The transportation mess is the legacy of policies that encouraged a continuous commercial building binge in the absence of comprehensive planning and construction of highways and roads to accommodate burgeoning growth.

The planning that envisioned Washington's suburbs as little more than bedroom communities for a few thousand commuters three decades ago was rendered obsolete in the '70s, as suburban governments joined the great economic development race.

Sporadic concerns about residential and commercial growth notwithstanding, government officials failed to plan properly for transportation needs and gave the green light for developers to steamroll across the landscape.

In the economic boom that followed, the development of millions of square feet of commercial space and residential projects outstripped road construction.

Hence, travel to burgeoning suburban office centers, business parks and shopping centers, and between suburbia and downtown, has become a commuter's nightmare. The implications for the region's economy go well beyond commuter headaches, however.

Speakers at a hearing on transportation problems in Northern Virginia last week apparently recognized that fact when they warned of economic chaos in the suburbs because of poor roads.

A recent article in Economic Development Commentary, a publication of the National Council for Urban Economic Development, is useful in assessing the history of suburban growth and as a lesson for future planning and development in this area. The authors, George Sternlieb and James W. Hughes, professors at Rutgers University in New Jersey, point out that the rise to prominence of suburban growth is the result of many factors.

But, they add, three "initiating factors" are important: The evolution of the American economy to the point where the service sector is the overwhelmingly dominant growth element; federal financial deregulatory actions and tax legislation, which provided enormous tax incentives for real estate investment, and the "third-generation impact" of the nation's interstate-highway system.

"These developments have tended to foster, respectively, intensive metropolitan service growth, massive office construction and overbuilt markets, and suburban growth corridors marked by concentrated office development along metropolitan ring highways," Sternlieb and Hughes contend.

The arteries that were originally designed to bypass metropolitan centers have themselves "become anchors of intensive development."

It has been the "maturation" of the interstate system that has "transformed America's economic geography," and developers often "move in seeming lockstep from overbuilt areas to underbuilt ones, only to saturate the market, in turn, instigating the search for new ones," say Sternlieb and Hughes.

Elsewhere, they warn that "the age of the septic tank is giving way to sophisticated waste-treatment facilities, while the growing potency of suburban gridlock will require massive expenditures. . . . The developmental pressures for physical infrastructure support in the suburban growth corridors are overwhelming. The physical geography of the 1990s' economy has been decided."

How officials guide the development -- highways and commercial and residential centers -- of Washington's suburbs in response to that decision is critical to the region's economy.

Recently, the Montgomery County Council tentatively agreed that it should develop a policy of annually reviewing growth in order to provide a status report on approved building permits, mark trends in real estate transactions and establish thresholds for growth.

Although approval is only tentative, county officials appear at least to understand the issue in broader terms than mere transportation problems.