It seems only fitting that when the heads of three of the areas' largest counties and a prominent D.C. official gathered to discuss regional issues last week, not everyone was there at the start. One of them got stuck in traffic.

Indeed, traffic talk dominated the two-hour mini-summit last Thursday when Fairfax County Board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (the rush-hour victim) appeared before the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

The purpose of the gathering, held at the Mark Center Hilton in Alexandria before a breakfast crowd of about 300, was to allow the four leaders, all Democrats, to discuss the challenges facing the Washington region in the coming years. At every turn, all of the panelists seemed to agree that no challenge loomed larger than gridlock.

"We have to find a way to increase regional [road] capacity," said Hanley, speaking just a day after a truck loaded with highly explosive black powder flipped on its side at the Springfield interchange, shutting down part of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 for much of the day. "Yesterday showed that. One switch was dropped, and everything goes kapowee."

And when the discussion turned to replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (now stalled in federal court) and the $900 million needed to complete the task, most of the group called on the federal government to pick up the tab. They argued the expanded bridge, currently envisioned as a 12-lane span, is vital for the entire Eastern Seaboard.

"We need the federal government to step up to the plate and pay for the bridge," Cropp said. "It'll be important for the whole region--north and south--not just the local region."

Some of the most emphatic comments came from Duncan, who declared that a long-proposed intercounty connector between Montgomery and Prince George's "will be built in my lifetime." High-technology companies in his county, he said, are demanding this be done because congestion on the Beltway already makes it nigh-impossible for many people to get places after 3 p.m. Without the new roadway, he predicted, Montgomery's high-tech corridor along Interstate 270 will "wither and die."

Others suggestions included a new outer-ring Beltway, advocated by Cropp, and a consortium, raised by Curry, to represent the different interests across the region in regard to building a new bridge over the Potomac River linking Virginia and Maryland.

Such a group, Curry said, could methodically assess and rank the numerous proposals for such a crossing. But he also noted that history indicates that cross-jurisdictional cooperation on major projects isn't easy to come by.

"The question of how you develop a regional consensus in order to alleviate some of our traffic woes is one that has plagued the area for many, many years," he said. "We've already studied crossing over the Potomac at various places for a couple of decades now and never mustered the political will. We can't even, quite frankly, get our [arms around] how we engineer not a new crossing but an old crossing, in the case of the Wilson Bridge."

Last week's gathering was the first time in memory that leaders of the four jurisdictions have come together to address Fairfax business leaders. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who addressed the Fairfax group earlier this year, has been pushing for his city and the suburbs to work together to address regional problems.

Last week's speakers said such gatherings foster good relations by allowing the members to better know one another and giving them the opportunity to address people outside their localities whom they wouldn't otherwise reach.

Rebecca Hatch Parker, a branch manager for an investment firm in McLean, said that she thought the discussion was an eye-opener and that she felt a sense of good will between the participants that she hadn't realized existed.

Noting that she used to think Montgomery and Fairfax leaders didn't overly concern themselves with working together on local issues, Parker said, "I'm walking away not feeling that way today."

CAPTION: Wayne K. Curry and Linda W. Cropp appear at a regional mini-summit.