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McDonnell's Victory and Virginia's Traffic 1

Some problems are too fouled up to be fixed.

By Petrarch  |  November 30, 2009

Republican governance is returning to Virginia in the form of newly-elected Bob McDonnell.  A landslide defeat of Democrat Creigh Deeds surely gives him enough political capital to try to put his policies in place.

From the national point of view, McDonnell's victory is seen as a repudiation of Mr. Obama's statist views and a call for smaller government and lower taxes.  On the ground in Virginia, however, Barack Obama was a very distant influence for most voters, far less important than their number one concern of unemployment.

In the battleground area of Northern Virginia, where I live, there was an even more urgent and pressing concern: the Bangkok-esque traffic gridlock conditions throughout the region.  Governor after governor has promised to fix the problem; governor after governor has failed utterly.

To the left, the solution is obvious: raise taxes, of course, so that people can't afford to drive cars and have to use motorcycles, bicycles, or best of all, slow and unreliable public transit.  The Washington Post ridiculed McDonnell for putting forward a detailed plan to attack traffic congestion that didn't include that essential element of increased taxation.  The liberal Post far preferred Deeds' plan - which did not, in fact, even exist - simply because he'd expressed a willingness to jack up taxes as high as needed.

The voters of Virginia felt otherwise.  Clearly, they believe that the problem can be solved without stealing even more of their hard-earned money.

They're right; but do they or Governor-elect McDonnell truly understand what caused the problem?  You can't solve a problem without understanding why it happened in the first place, and if the only answer proffered is "Build more roads!" then the only result will be a lot of money spent to little effect.

There are three major underlying causes of Northern Virginia's nightmarish road conditions that ought to be examined before countless millions are dumped down unionized ratholes.

The Wrong Way.

Stupid Governance

It's easy to say that more money needs to be spent on something.  What's the point of spending more, though, if the money will be wasted?  We see exactly that throughout America's public schools, where those jurisdictions that spend the most per student are also those with the worst results.  Money is not the problem; leadership is.

In Fairfax County, at least, that's a major part of the problem with the roads.  Consider this map, which is an area southeast of Dulles airport.  You'll note that there are two straight roads on the whole map (I-66 and Rt. 50); a couple of major roads that twist and turn like Michael Jackson; and a whole lot of little roads that don't connect to anything.

If you wanted to get from one side of the map to the other, you have basically two ways to do it - that's all.  Is it any wonder that gridlock is so endemic?

The major roads, of course, were built by the government.  The minor roads were built primarily by developers to serve housing developments and the occasional office park.

No homeowner wants his street to become a drag-racing strip.  The developers naturally built all their streets as dead ends, so nobody other than those who lived in the community would ever have reason to go in there.  As a result, it's not uncommon to have an entire development consisting of hundreds of homes hanging off of one single connection to the outside world, like grapes in a bunch that connect to the vine via one easily broken stalk.

Once the first developers started out this way, it made sense for all the rest to do the same thing.  Imagine what would happen if one civic-minded developer had connected their streets at both ends.  Instead of only two ways to get from left to right, there'd now be three - and, sure enough, that third connection would instantly become a raceway nobody would want to live on.  Either the developer would have to pay twice as much to make a much bigger road, at no benefit to him, or he would have created homes nobody would ever want to buy.

The Right Way.

There is another way to do it, and it illustrates one of those areas which is the proper place of government: to enforce laws that benefit everyone when everyone has to obey them, but which only work when they are common to all.

Our second map shows a part of Los Angeles, CA.  Now, LA is famous for heavy traffic - and deservedly so, I've driven there many times.  Actual gridlock in LA is rare, however.  Why?  Because there are literally hundreds of ways to get from one place to another.

Compare the the road networks.  Like Fairfax County, this map of a portion of northern Los Angeles county has a major freeway, and some secondary roads.  Unlike Virginia, though, California's town planners made sure to connect all the roads at both ends - secondary, tertiary, even alleys, a dead end is uncommon and short.

Most roads are straight and continuous.  That way, if one road is blocked, there are plenty of other choices.  Sure, the freeway has no stoplights and the other roads do, but at least you aren't trapped.  In Virginia, there literally is no other way but the major roads, unless you own a helicopter or can persuade the taxpayers to buy you one.

No one developer could have put together a road network like LA has across an entire region; only government has the necessary authority.  California's government, back in the 1930s-1950s, had the wisdom and foresight to think things through and plan accordingly.  Virginia's didn't bother.

Money had nothing to do with it.  Fairfax County is one of America's wealthiest and most intrusive zoning authorities.  We've previously complained at how zoning controls destroy private property rights, but given that they've been around longer than most Americans have been alive, that may be a lost cause.

Can't zoning be used for good?  How much would it have cost for the Fairfax County fathers to buy a wall-sized map thirty years ago and a box of Sharpies, then mark out where the roads "should" go?  No need to build them; just require the developers to do it as each community was built one at a time.

Eventually, they'd all connect, nice and neatly.  With as many different routes as in California, no one neighborhood would be overwhelmed by traffic.

How does Bob McDonnell plan to fix this problem?  He can't; it's too late.  To connect all the minor roads through existing housing developments would not only be insanely expensive, it would cause a frightful backlash as each and every voter would see themselves as being harmed.  It would take a salesman of far more than Obamian skill to persuade them that the plan would actually benefit them when it was finished.

Would they even believe him if they understood the idea?  Probably not, and rightly so.  We'll explore why in the next article in this series.