In Virginia, routes numbered 600 and above are part of the secondary system. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The transportation plan presented Monday by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II would dramatically shift responsibility for the way Virginia creates and maintains secondary roads.

It raises many important questions. Among them: What’s a secondary road?

Cuccinelli’s plan may have emerged late in this campaign, but it’s got a long history in the tensions between state and local control in decision-making on transportation issues. This is the short version:

In the people-moving hierarchy, secondary roads rank beneath interstates, U.S. routes or primary roads, but they are highly important in the daily lives of Virginians, many of whom will start and end their trips on these local public streets. There are more than 10,000 miles of them in Northern Virginia, within communities and between communities, compared with about 470 miles of primary roads. To identify roads in the secondary system, look for a black and white state shield with a route numbered 600 or above.

Outside of the Commonwealth, secondary roads are often known as county roads, and it’s the counties that take responsibility for them. In Virginia, the central government in Richmond has a lot more control over local streets than is typical in most other states, including Maryland.

The Great Depression created an early crisis in local road financing, and the General Assembly agreed to have the state take control of many county routes. Under legislation known as the Byrd Road Act of 1932, creating a secondary road system in addition to the primary system of highways that the state already was developing and maintaining.

Among the counties that opted out was Arlington, which to this day takes responsibility for its local roads. Everywhere else in Northern Virginia, the Virginia Department of Transportation builds and maintains most of the roads, cuts the grass in the summer and plows the snow in the winter.

A look at the Road Maintenance page on the Fairfax County government Web site shows the practical effect of the Byrd Road Act. The page says simply: “Virtually all public roads (interstate, primary and secondary) in Fairfax County are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Please contact VDOT at 1-800-FOR-ROAD (367-7623), TTY 711, or use VDOT’s online work request for information or to request maintenance.”

Having the state government pick up the tab for the roads eased the burden on the counties, but also gave the state most of the control over the development of the road network.

As some of the state’s counties grew and prospered, and developed traffic congestion problems similar to those of big cities, their governments began to chafe at the lack of control. Residents of the wealthier counties also resented the idea that they were sending tax money to Richmond for distribution among roads across the state.

While some county leaders have been eager to take back control over the local streets, they have been less enthusiastic about taking back control over raising the money to build and maintain them.

State leaders also have expressed frustration with the one-sided arrangement. They’ve seen the local governments spend a lot more time thinking about the impact a new development will have on schools the local governments pay for than on roads that Richmond will finance. Also, it’s VDOT that inherits any long-term problems with the design of the local roads.

Cuccinelli’s proposal lands in the midst of this state-local tension. According to the campaign document released Monday, the goal of the secondary roads initiative is to “Empower Virginia localities by decentralizing our transportation system.”

“One of the fundamental reasons why our state has been plagued by transportation problems for decades is an undeniable lack of decision making and buy-in at the local level,” the proposal continues. “While our counties do have an option to take responsibility for secondary roads, they have little incentive to do so because of regulatory burdens and costs.”

To change that, Cuccinelli would do two things: Place decision-making for local transportation projects in the hands of local officials and “dedicate existing funding streams to localities for transportation without imposing a statewide
tax increase.”

The initial candidates would be the counties with the biggest populations and resources. To start, that would include Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun. “The commonwealth will send counties funds equal to those currently used for secondary roads through block grants and allow those counties to raise additional funds if needed on their own,” the statement reads.

Eventually, “the state will establish a date certain that it would no longer accept newly constructed subdivision roads for maintenance.”

For Virginia’s transportation advocates, the highlight of the 21st century came earlier this year when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the General Assembly broke an interminable jam on transportation financing by approving a tax plan that will raise much more money for projects. The law also sends a portion of that money to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for spending on regional projects. As they assess Cuccinelli’s new plan, they are likely to look closely at its financial implications in light of the hard battle in Richmond that they won so recently.

Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, was generally supportive of the plan developed by the governor and legislature. On his campaign Web site, he says “we need to incentivize regional planning and implementation of smart growth planning” but does not propose returning control of secondary roads to counties.

My colleague, transportation reporter Ashley Halsey III, writes in Tuesday’s Post that the Cuccinelli transportation plan “creates a stark difference between the two men. McAuliffe’s approach envisions enhancement of Richmond’s central role in transportation planning and continued state responsibility for secondary roads unless a county opts otherwise.”

It’s rare in Virginia’s recent gubernatorial history for a campaign pledge on transportation to survive the General Assembly, and that’s where the counties — big and small — would bring their influence to bear on any change in a road-financing formula that’s eight decades old.