“My three major job-creating centers are having a huge problem,” Governor McDonnell protests. He had hoped to privatize the commonwealth’s state-monopoly liquor stores and invest the proceeds from their sale in transportation, but that initiative failed. He also tried to open up new oil-and-gas drilling in the state and direct its proceeds to transportation, but his efforts were blocked by the Obama administration. A series of audits and reforms helped squeeze some extra value out of the Virginia Department of Transportation, but in the end he was left with something that most conservatives find unpalatable: a substantial tax increase to support an ambitious public-works project.
“Those people sitting out there in the parking lot that is I-495 — those are voters,” says Virginia secretary of transportation Sean Connaughton, who served in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the George W. Bush administration. “They are” — he pauses for a moment, as though not quite sure whether he should finish the thought — “Republican voters, a lot of them, conservative Republicans, out in Loudoun County and places like that. They expect us to do something.” Mr. Connaughton is himself a frustrated Virginia commuter: He drives daily from his home in the Virginia exurbs of Washington to the state capital of Richmond, some 100 miles away — and that drive takes him less time than his previous commute into Washington. “It’s just crazy,” he says.
Before I sit in traffic on the freeway into Philadelphia, I get to sit in traffic on the Blue Route, and before that I get to sit in suburban traffic on Lancaster Avenue, the nation’s first paved intercity road, privately financed and built in 1795. The allegedly 32-minute drive from the suburb of Wayne, Pa., to Rittenhouse Square in the center of Philadelphia takes more than an hour, and a good part of that time is spent just trying to get to the Schuylkill Expressway — or “Surekill Distressway,” as it is locally known.
The Schuylkill is a very special circle of commuter hell, the busiest road in Pennsylvania, used by hundreds of thousands of commuters each day. On a fine bright Monday-morning drive into Philadelphia not long ago, a young man pulled up next to me in a new Volkswagen Jetta. He looked every inch the prosperous young coffee achiever: In a new car, on his way to work early on a Monday morning, wearing a suit — and as we sat stalled in traffic, he produced a small glass pipe and a lighter, and took a deep, long drag of crack. I think that the guy who designed the Schuylkill must have been doing something similar: The freeway is a sort of inside-out abomination, with most of the exits and on-ramps on the left side of the road rather than the right, which makes for some pretty interesting rush-hour maneuvering. The lanes are narrow and, because it closely hugs the contours of the Schuylkill River, it has proved impossible to expand or improve. The design is so poor that a 2009 rainstorm resulted in a four-hour traffic jam of such absolute stillness that drivers were seen getting out of their cars and playing cards. That’s a high price to pay for living in the suburbs.
Those traffic-stranded suburbanites point to the reason why the transit problem is probably unsolvable. They don’t have the same access to mass transit, but people want to live in the suburbs of Sun Belt cities for the same reason they want to live in the suburbs of northeastern cities: a measure of privacy, superior schools, and room to raise a family. The ten-minute commute between Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District via a $112-a-month unlimited subway pass is very attractive if you are the sort of person who enjoys living in a 500-square-foot New York City apartment, i.e., young and well-off or old and well-off. For people in the middle — and, especially, for non-millionaire married couples with children — the suburbs continue to be very attractive.