Dennis C. Morrison is having a little trouble finding a place to live. He's suffering through the usual sticker shock for someone new to Northern Virginia, and then there's that infamous traffic to consider.
He would "like to try to figure out a commute within 30 minutes" of his Chantilly office, Morrison said. But it's been frustrating.
Locals know that feeling, the one that makes them wish they could just build a new highway.
And that's where they differ from Morrison, because as the Virginia Department of Transportation's new Northern Virginia district administrator, he can.
"People will probably think I'm crazy for saying this, but it's one of the most challenging and best jobs in the Department of Transportation," said Morrison, 54, who has held various positions in regional departments across the state during his 27 years with VDOT. "It's an opportunity to really make a difference in an area with all kinds of challenges."
There is no doubt that Morrison will face all kinds of challenges in a $115,000-a-year job that requires him to oversee more than 4,000 miles of roads and manage relations between politicians and planners.
Morrison replaces Thomas F. Farley, who retired in July. He comes to the state's biggest regional department from his post as Staunton district administrator at a time when transportation funds are diminishing and traffic problems are proliferating. State officials and others have estimated that it will take upwards of $5 billion to fix problems with the region's transportation network.
Already this year, several planned projects have been dropped from the state's to-do list for lack of funds. Politicians are heading to next year's General Assembly session with what they say is a renewed commitment to find more money for roads and rail, but there are no guarantees they will be any more successful than in the past.
In the meantime, officials have turned to proposals for toll roads, including high-occupancy toll lanes, and public-private funding partnerships to try to bridge the gap. Morrison said he supports all of these approaches and also wants VDOT to be more innovative.
"I think we're going to have to look at other ways [of relieving congestion] in lieu of the traditional ways of just widening roads," he said, listing rail, buses, telecommuting, bikeways and pedestrian corridors as possible solutions.
Morrison said one of his primary goals is to help localities develop in the way they want, in large part by including the transportation network they have mapped as part of their plans. Too often, he said, development decisions are made in the absence of road decisions, leaving an area with thousands of new residents and only a two-lane country road to serve them.
"If the county has a vision of what they want to look like in 10 years, 15 years or so, transportation has to be an element of that," Morrison said. "My goal is to reach out to the local governments as a resource and a team member and assist them and work with them in solving problems with transportation issues."
Morrison said his other main goal is to fix some inefficiencies at VDOT, such as improving snow removal, inventory management and maintenance operations.
Others say his toughest task will be balancing the competing desires of the region's local governments, which have different priorities from each other and from other localities in the Washington area.
"His challenge will not be substance, it will be process," said Deputy Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer, a former deputy county executive in Prince William County. "In Northern Virginia, the process and the way in which we reach transportation solutions is much more complex and difficult, and that will take a little time to learn."
But Homer said he has few concerns about what kind of job Morrison will do. "Dennis knows the substance cold," he said. "He is an excellent problem-solver."