McDonnell's Victory and Virginia's Traffic 2

Governmental responsibility should always be at the lowest possible level.

It's said that "All politics is local."  As much as national Republicans and conservatives would love to draw an anti-Obama lesson from Bob McDonnell's victory in Virginia, his election owed as much to local issues as to revulsion at Mr. Obama's aggressive statism.  In battleground Northern Virginia, there is one local issue that trumps all: traffic gridlock; unemployment is less of an issue because so many voters work for the federal government which is growing instead of laying off.

The trouble for McDonnell is that the underlying cause of traffic problems is not just the obvious one of a lack of money.  In a way, Virginia's traffic problems encapsulate the whole trouble with modern American governance: a government that is overly intrusive into areas that are not properly its sphere, negligent and incompetent in areas where it really does have a legitimate job to do, and unresponsive to citizen complaints or local needs.

In the first article in this series, we talked about how Fairfax County's government abdicated their responsibility to plan an effective road network, and now it's basically too late to fix.

How did this happen over several decades?  Let's find out.

The Mountains Are High, The Emperor is Far Away

I grew up in northern New England, a place famous for heavy snow but not (anymore) for great wealth.  What's more, New Hampshire has high mountains, rough terrain, and many screwy roads that were originally laid down by Indians in moccasins chasing wild deer.

Nevertheless, rare indeed was the blizzard so fierce that any roads, even the most minor, were truly impassable.  The main highways were kept clear at all hours and all weather save glare ice; even then, within an hour or two the salt and sand would be spread to keep traffic moving.  Within a few hours after the storm stopped, all would be cleared away.

Virginia, on the other hand, is a much warmer place that gets much less snow, and has a whole lot more money.  Imagine my surprise at discovering that the government's official goal is to have all roads passable two days following the end of a storm!

The problem is not so much that the government doesn't have the right equipment; that would be understandable in Miami, but snow is hardly unheard of in the Old Dominion.  The problem is simple incompetence.

The quality of road-clearing is execrable - driving a snowplow over a snowy road should result in, well, a road more or less clear of snow.  Why, instead, does it have washboard-like hillocks of compressed ice?  Or, worse, why does one often see snowplows driving aimlessly about at the height of a storm with their plows raised, doing nothing at all except for spewing carbon?

There ought to be political repercussions to this sort of stupidity.  There are not, as the local county fathers have a gold-plated excuse: The roads aren't theirs.  Virtually all of the roads are the responsibility of the state!

Now, far back in the day when the counties were mostly rural and there really weren't any local roads, just through-routes, that might have made sense.  For at least fifty years, it has not - and New Hampshire's system of governance is just as antiquated, yet they manage to make it work in a far more orderly fashion.

What's the difference?  It's one of political responsibility.

New England is famously the home of town meetings, where each small local jurisdiction handles as much political control as it possibly can.  The state takes care of the interstate highways and major through routes; everything else is up to the town, although state employee unions have been lobbying for the state to take over more and more functions.  At least for now, if your road is potholed, you can complain to your selectmen - and something might actually happen, because you represent a far greater proportion of his constituency than you do of the governor's.

How much does the state governor care about one particular road?  Could he even find it on a map?  Who do you complain to when it's obviously screwed up?

Something's missing here...

Within easy walking distance of each other, on several separate Northern Virginia roads, you can find a half-dozen examples of such transparent idiocies as the one in the picture.  Observe:  it's a major four-lane road at both ends... except in the middle, there's a chunk out of it to go around some bozo's lawn (a county official's perhaps?), thus destroying the entire point of the four-lane road.  They might just as well have left it as a two-lane road and saved the money.

A quarter-mile further south, the road does much the same thing again - then a mile beyond that, goes down to two lanes just before a major intersection.  By the way, what's logically the same road changes names three times in a similar distance, confounding anyone who doesn't live in the area.  Do it right, or don't it at all!

Again, the problem is obvious to the people who actually use the road, but they have next to no power over those who build or pay for it.  If this local road were built by the local town using its own property-tax dollars, the story would be different.

How is Gov. Bob McDonnell going to solve this kind of problem?  How many hundreds of these examples must there be across the state - each with their own sordid history of failure, incompetence, or even corruption?  No one man can fix them all.

The only solution would be a respect for the principles of subsidiarity - that is, give the money, power, and accountability to the lowest possible level of government.  For local roads, this would be the all-but-forgotten towns; for secondary roads, it might be the county; and if all that the state had to take care of were the interstate highways and other major routes, it would do a far better job.

Subsidiarity would involve giving up power, something politicians of any stripe are loathe to do, and not exactly a platform even the generally-laudable McDonnell ran on.  Without it, though, nothing will change, and the problem won't be solved.

Control aside, there's one last obstacle to solving Virginia's traffic problem which is found right across the United States.  We'll take a look at it in the final article in this series.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Mr P, things have not changed since the 60s it seems; I remember snow storms would paralyse the nation's capitol- DC and the Maryland 'burbs as well- up to a week if more than 6" of snow fell.
And don't ask about the drivers' skill in negotiating the icy and treacherous roads.
When I moved to Norfolk, with its much more mild climate, things were much improved. And needless to say up in them hills- Staunton, Winchester and points west or along the Shenandoah - nobody seemed to notice but what a sticky set of drivers were DC area folk.
Sorry, off topic...
Like your looks like a newer (<10 yrs) development.
December 2, 2009 1:54 PM
I can't imagine how a situation, such as that in the photo, could result short of corruption. Incompetence surely can't be to blame for that.
December 2, 2009 10:44 PM
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