Under the terms of the 1957 News Reporter Full Employment Act and the 1959 Civic Associations Reason to Gather Law, public officials must keep with them at all times a copy of secret plans for an Outer Beltway.
From this passion for pavement flows virtually all of the agitation and angina that have plagued suburban Washington over the past four decades.
Last week, for example, at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, 150 people who otherwise might have been at home arguing with their children gathered instead to batter Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen with about 643 reasons that building the Montrose Parkway would end civilization as we know it. The subject of their wrath is a planned $67 million highway that would divert traffic from Montrose Road for less than two miles before abruptly emptying into even more congested streets.
This sort of confrontation has been going on for longer than most of us have been alive, and whether the subject is the proposed Intercounty Connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the Techway bridge over the Potomac, the Battlefield Bypass in Manassas, the fearsome Western Transportation Corridor or the Rockville Facility (may it rest in peace), the scene is as predictable as the sunrise. Let's have a peek:
Dozens of otherwise respectable people who hold down real jobs and rarely, if ever, shake their fists at their bosses have donned stupid-looking T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan of their cause, "Stop Montrose Parkway." One after another, they rise to browbeat an elected representative, Floreen.
"I've been testifying about this road for 22 years," says resident Steve Goldstein. "This road is not about solving transportation problems; it's about providing infrastructure so they can build more housing."
The crowd wants to know about studies that haven't been done, environmental concerns that haven't been allayed, alternative routes that haven't been considered.
Floreen, bless her fortitude, stands firm: "This is a project that has been approved, and it will be constructed."
Yet she knows the road is no panacea. When one guy says the road is supposed to make traffic better, Floreen counters, "No, it will get less worse."
There are so many Roads to Nowhere and Roads to Ruin in the rhetorical gallery of our region that the greatest road builder of them all, Til Hazel, Father of Tysons Corner, believes it is nearly impossible to build any major project in this region. Any 9-year-old could look at the evidence and conclude that Hazel is right, but good luck persuading the powers that be to shift their efforts to expanding transit alternatives, building housing closer to jobs and jacking up parking fees to push people out of their cars.
Along an edge of the room, one of many lawyers in the hall, Steve Sorett, tells me: "It's a foregone conclusion that the council's going to vote yes. We're just getting our ducks in a row for litigation." Here it comes.
Astonishingly, after four decades of this, politicians and builders still have not gotten the point that for all the carping about congestion, people who live in already-built suburbs do not want new highways -- period.
In 1957, planners came up with the Outer Circumferential Freeway, a 122-mile concrete circle that would have about twice the radius of the Capital Beltway and assure citizens associations in the Washington suburbs of an eternal flow of dues payments.
With sprawl extending the borders of the development debate, the battle over the Western Transportation Corridor rages in Stafford, Fauquier and Loudoun counties, triggering their own 40-year march toward stalemate.
History argues that the Montrose Parkway will not be built, not in five years, not in five decades. Half a century of growth has shown that building roads only exacerbates traffic, and that while sticking to the status quo may seem idiotic, it tends to work out fine. The District is far better off today without an interstate coursing through its center than it would have been had the North Central Freeway (aka the White Man's Road Through Black Man's Homes) been built in 1966. The Outer Beltway still doesn't exist, yet people manage. We adapt. If things get too annoying, we move.
The lessons are simple: Transportation infrastructure is best built before communities grow up, and the answer is not always a road.