For Northern Virginia motorists who have been steaming in backups, offering up traffic excuses to impatient bosses and getting pounded with late fees at day care, here's an item of little consolation:

Virginia ranks roughly in the middle of the pack in the amount it pays to build and upgrade roads and transit.

According to a computer analysis of public budgets in all 50 states, Virginia ranks 33rd in transportation spending per capita. When measured by spending on transportation projects as a share of government expenditures, it rates 25th.

A little ambition, please, Virginia's commuters might say. What would it take to climb the ladder of transportation spending?

Suppose every Virginian were asked to pay an extra $100 a year for roads and transit, boosting the average contribution toward transportation capital costs to $280. It would raise about $4.5 billion for Northern Virginia in 20 years.

That's less than half the increase called for by Northern Virginia's top transportation panel, the bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council. Yet it's several times greater than what legislative candidates from both parties have proposed even as they strive to outdo each other in plans for adding tax revenue, budget surpluses and income from legal settlements to transportation funding.

And it's enough to rocket Virginia into the top 10 states.

But what should you buy with the extra money? And what difference would it make?

Those questions were posed to some of brightest transportation minds in the area, including regional planners, national experts, business leaders and environmental activists. They were given a budget of $4.5 billion and sent shopping.

Some of the projects they suggested are well-publicized, big-ticket items. Widen the Capital Beltway for about $2 billion, said some. Extend rail to Tysons Corner and run either express buses or trains farther along the Dulles corridor for up to $2 billion more.

Several ideas mentioned most frequently, however, have not been prominent in the current political debate: Make up part of what Metro says is a $2 billion shortfall in local funding for modernizing and replacing its rail cars, tracks and other equipment over 20 years. Finish and upgrade the Fairfax County Parkway as soon as possible. Spend a healthy chunk of money, perhaps $500 million to $1 billion, on improving dozens of local intersections by adding turn lanes, improving the timing on traffic lights and so on.

After you have quickly exhausted your budget, how much traffic relief have you bought with these projects?

"At least you'll see some intermediate improvements for five to 10 years. Some things will get better before they get worse," said Robert Dunphy, senior transportation researcher at the Urban Land Institute.

To make matters worse, this could convert the commonwealth to a vast construction site. Exasperation is already mounting with the early months of inconvenience caused by the reconstruction of the Springfield interchange. Motorists wait with trepidation for the planned rebuilding of Interstate 66 and widening of the Beltway, which may all overlap with work on the Springfield interchange and the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Before Virginia breaks ground for more projects, say some experts and local officials, it should break new ground.

Dunphy said Virginia needs to extricate itself from the "Stone Age in thinking" and accept the "notion of integrating transportation and land use, which is certainly known in planning circles." The need for better management of the region's growth is highlighted by the modest results that would be realized even by spending $4.5 billion more than the money already earmarked for transportation.

The local elected officials on the transportation council said they recognized the relationship between planning for transportation and planning for growth during the year-long exercise of drafting an area-wide shopping list. "All of us in the region are becoming increasingly aware and sensitive to that issue," said Fairfax City Mayor John Mason, who played a key role in the study.

Advocates of a transportation spending blitz say the region can afford it. Virginia ranks 40th in the country when measured by the proportion of state income spent on building and upgrading roads and transit, according to U.S. Census data.

When asked which projects would represent the wisest spending of new money, experts most frequently mentioned the running of Metrorail from West Falls Church to serve the Tysons Corner area. This item won favor from such varied figures as representatives of environmental groups, like the Surface Transportation Policy Project, as well as the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "It provides a link that is missing," said Robert T. Grow, the board's transportation director.

But the proposal to extend the rail line farther out the Dulles corridor, though supported by some experts, was greeted with a measure of skepticism from others, including commuting consultant Alan E. Pisarski and Roy Kienitz, executive director of the policy project, who suggested that express buses could represent a better investment.

The most frequently posited road priority was not the widening of any interstate or construction of a new highway but rather a massive campaign to upgrade intersections across Northern Virginia, by adding turn lanes and retiming traffic signals, for instance.

Ronald F. Kirby, chief transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said spending at least $500 million could improve perhaps 150 intersections in only a few years. "These are the kind of things that can have a big payoff, but they can be starved for money," he said.

A more aggressive approach would involve converting intersections to interchanges, so vehicles can move from one road to another without crossing other traffic or stopping. The transportation council estimated that 44 interchanges could be built or upgraded for about $900 million.

Many experts, such as Stewart Schwartz, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Bob Chase, of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, listed the immediate completion of the Fairfax County Parkway as a priority. They said the roadway provides an important suburb-to-suburb link, offering an alternative to the beleaguered Beltway. Chase urged that it be converted to an expressway.

Widening the Beltway itself was tapped as a top priority by several of those interviewed. "It's the major artery in the region, and you're getting serious problems in certain pieces of it," Kirby said. The current state proposal calls for expanding the Beltway from eight to 12 lanes.

Business figures also pressed for new highways and bridges outside the Beltway, including a western bypass and new Potomac River crossing.

By contrast, environmentalists urged that the first $700 million to $1 billion be spent to foster development around at least seven existing Metro stations. This could pay for replacing parking lots with underground garages to free up property for new businesses and homes and for improving surrounding streets and sidewalks.

"Money alone can't solve the problem," said Kienitz, of the policy project. "No matter how you spend $4.5 billion, it can't solve the problem. We need to stop talking about money for a while and start talking about managing growth."

Even the ambitious allowance of $4.5 billion would leave many roads far more congested than they are today, according to transportation council projections. "We can all fight over who has more of the mess and who has less of the mess," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), who was active on the council.

Although officials involved in the 2020 study stressed that generous funding remains a must, they agreed that growth management is also essential to confronting the traffic crisis--in particular, steering development to sites served by transit.

"We can't solve all our transportation problems solely with transportation dollars," Zimmerman said.

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.