Its wealth and booming economy notwithstanding, Northern Virginia now ironically finds itself unable to spend its way out of what officials and business leaders have described as a transportation crisis.

Call it a transportation crisis if you'd like, but it's really part of a more complex problem called sprawl.

That, of course, is what the sound and fury involving Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and officials and business leaders in Northern Virginia is all about. Gilmore not only rejects the idea of a tax increase to pay for transportation improvements but also has yet to embrace any of several alternatives suggested by Northern Virginia officials.

And with Gilmore apparently planning to unveil his own plan next week for funding transportation improvements in Northern Virginia, the governor's timing appears to be designed more to counter growing criticism than anything else.

Whether Gilmore decides to use part of the state's share of the national settlement with tobacco companies, as reports indicate, or some other source of funding won't be nearly as important as the actual amount he's prepared to spend on transportation in Northern Virginia.

Given Gilmore's earlier statements on the subject, his spending plan will in all likelihood fall short of what officials and business leaders say is needed to relieve congestion on roads and highways in that part of the state.

Officials note, for example, that the Northern Virginia portion of the regional transportation plan will require about $16 billion for expansion and maintenance of the existing system. Meanwhile, the 20-year transportation needs plan (the 2020 plan) calls for another $11 billion to build and maintain additional improvements in Northern Virginia through 2020.

In short, the Northern Virginia 2020 Plan amounts to a $27 billion transportation bailout formula. That's considerably more than Gilmore is prepared to offer, or indeed is in position to offer, even if the projections in the 2020 plan are on target.

Gilmore clearly mishandled appeals for help from Northern Virginia officials with his bitter attacks on Democrats whenever the subject came up. But he obviously can't be blamed for Northern Virginia's transportation dilemma.

The truth is, the chickens have come home to roost in Northern Virginia, threatening the very quality of life and economic prosperity that a long list of officials have pursued so aggressively over the past several years. The trouble is that these officials gave too little thought to land-use controls; the rapid spread of leapfrog, low-density residential and commercial development; and the pressures that that type of development would exert on the infrastructure.

Thus, Northern Virginia finds itself trapped by sprawl, a condition that might have been avoided by more prudent planning, zoning and growth management.

Suburban sprawl generates or aggravates two sets of problems that reduce the quality of life for millions of Americans, according to Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. One set of problems occurs mainly in fast-growing areas but also spreads to other areas, Downs noted in a 1998 Brookings report, "The New Metropolitan Agenda."

This particular set, he added, includes traffic congestion, air pollution, large-scale absorption of open space, extensive use of energy for movement, inability to provide adequate infrastructure to accommodate growth because of high construction and land costs, and suburban labor shortages due to inadequate low-income housing near new jobs.

Low-density growth also "tempts governments to spend too much of their limited resources on building highly visible new infrastructures rather than on the nearly invisible process of properly maintaining older existing ones," Downs also noted. "So we finance growth by gradually undermining the sustainability of the existing infrastructure inventory."

Transportation may be the buzzword in Northern Virginia's appeal to Richmond for help, but Northern Virginia's biggest problem is sprawl--unwittingly fueled by poor public policy and abetted by developers and others in the business community.

Gilmore may be in "total denial," as developer John T. "Til" Hazel complained recently. But so were Northern Virginia officials whenever anyone suggested that development be curbed until new roads and other infrastructure be built to accommodate growth. The voices of reason and orderly development were typically drowned out by detractors who portrayed them as anti-growth troublemakers.

It's rather ironic then that Northern Virginia officials and business leaders are now asking the governor to help eliminate a problem caused by unmanaged growth at the local level.

"We risk losing that which has made this region and the state so great--its enviable quality of life and economic prosperity," James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, recently warned in a letter to Gilmore.

It will take money and leadership to improve the transportation infrastructure, a business leader involved with transportation issues suggested in a telephone conversation this week.

Even if that's true, Northern Virginia can neither pave nor spend its way out of sprawl.