With little fanfare and against the wishes of officials from Loudoun, Fauquier and Clarke counties, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton has pushed through a vote giving the Outer Beltway concept a needed bureaucratic designation that could accelerate funding for it.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board voted Wednesday to designate the Outer Beltway as a new “Corridor of Statewide Significance.” The highway would run from Interstate 95 in Stafford County miles south of the current Beltway-I-95 “Mixing Bowl” and head north along the western suburbs to connect with Route 7 in Loudoun County.

The original plan for Washington’s Beltway from the 1950s called for three rings of concentric circles. Ironically, viewed from above, they could be Cold War-era bull’s eyes for Soviet nuclear bombers or missiles. (Oddly, Moscow has a similar three-ringed system.) The idea for Washington’s outer loop died in the 1980s.

It’s curious that it’s popping up again now. Environmental groups such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth, strongly oppose Connaughton’s push, saying he didn’t confer with local leaders and that the plan would divert scarce state transportation construction dollars from projects such as Interstates 66 and 95, Dulles Rail and Metro.

The bottom-line conundrum: What’s the real purpose of the Outer Beltway? Is it to ease the traffic burden of motorists caught in massive traffic jams? Or is it to push exurban sprawl farther west and south of where it is today?

One would have thought that the rush to exurbia had gone away after the financial and construction crash of 2007-08. It had been driven by cheap money and cheap land. And instead of alleviating traffic issues, it made them worse.

So what’s the deal with this? The go-go building years of the last decade have hardly returned. The state can’t fix or build the roads it has. If this is some kind of public-private partnership arrangement that’s being hatched in Richmond or some developer’s office somewhere, Virginians have a right to now.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.