What will the helicoptered Captain Dans of tomorrow be reporting about rush hours in Greater Washington? Will the banks of the Potomac still be lined twice daily with bumper crops of idling cars? Or will the masses be concentrated in the subways, buses, jitneys and watercraft of the future? Where will people be going, anyway -- into "town" in the morning or out from, say, Fairfax, to elaborate work sites in Stafford County and beyond? And while we're at this, who's going to be picking up the tab for roads, rails and other transportation improvements? How staggering will these costs be?

Time's up: You get partial credit for almost any answer -- which is why more politicians and transportation experts should be thinking about how to put their money where their commuters will be in the 21st century. Yet more often than not, those charged with responsibility for transportation are still divided into the old warring factions that have at each other whenever a legislature convenes: roads vs. mass transit, city/suburb vs. more rural area. All too frequently, the results shortchange certain areas, waste money on duplicating services or play hell with anything resembling sensible growth.

In an effort to look down the roads of the future, Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity made an important suggestion last March about transportation in the Northern Virginia of tomorrow. To address the movements to and from the west of his county, Mr. Herrity proposed a regional transportation agency that would encompass the region's booming outer counties. It would reflect traffic patterns and concerns of residents in Prince William, Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and in the cities of Fredericksburg, Manassas and Manassas Park.

Invitations to a meeting went out in July, and last week various politicians, transportation officials and staffs convened in Stafford. Although some participants seized the season to wax political, those who could look beyond city-country or roads-rails sparring found common concerns: the lengths to which people -- and tax dollars -- can travel together.

Ralph L. Stanley, who heads the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, noted that nearly every major metropolitan area in the country is wrestling with its own "urban mobility problem"; and in many cases, those regions are failing because bureaucrats with antiquated fiefdoms -- highway departments or transit agencies -- are still engaged in narrow battles to protect their projects and money and want to be first in line for more.

As an incentive for a more coordinated approach, the administration can offer some initial planning assistance, and Mr. Stanley did note that the Northern Virginia group might be eligible for such a grant. In any event, transportation staff members from the various jurisdictions will be meeting in the coming weeks to consider specific ways in which a new regional authority could better address policies not only among and for each other -- but in Richmond,where the interest and money of the entire state can, and should be, involved.