Gridlock and the census

Published 9:20 pm Thursday, February 3, 2011

With the Virginia General Assembly in the midst of considering a $4-billion road construction funding plan put forward last month by Gov. Bob McDonnell, the U.S. Census Bureau has released the results of its 2010 survey of American households. The numbers that came back from Virginia might bode well for future transportation plans as they relate to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

Northern Virginia and Suffolk led the state in growth. Suffolk’s 32-perent increase in residents since 2000, left it with 84,585 residents in 2010. On a percentage basis, the city led the growth in greater Hampton Roads, where only Portsmouth and Hampton lost population.

The growth rates in Northern Virginia are almost shocking. Loudon County grew by 84 percent during the first decade of the 20th century and a 17-county patch of north-central Virginia stretching from Prince William south to Chesterfield and from King George west to Albermarle grew by more than 20 percent.

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The commonwealth’s population losers were generally in rural parts of Virginia’s west and on the Eastern Shore. Other rural portions of the commonwealth experienced only light to moderate growth.

The past decade’s growth patterns are likely to have some interesting effects on the state’s political tilt — the explosion of growth in liberal Northern Virginia helps explain the state’s choice of Barack Obama for president a little more than two years ago, for example — but those patterns will also have a bearing on a power shift that has been building strength for a while.

One of the forces that has stymied the General Assembly’s efforts to fund Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia road projects has been a unified front of opposition by lawmakers from rural parts of the state, who argued that the folks in those two areas should pay for their own highway improvements. That argument led some time ago to a failed referendum on a local sales tax increase for transportation.

With the growth of both Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, however, district lines will have to be redrawn, and those areas will gain significant voting power within the General Assembly. A concerted effort by legislators representing such a large number of Virginians would prove hard for its opponents to stop.

This power shift is important, because even if the governor’s plan for borrowing $4 billion for road construction is approved in the Assembly, some of the most pressing traffic and safety issues in our area will remain unaddressed. Billions more would have to be spent in order to relieve the gridlock that is part of everyday life for so many here and in Northern Virginia.

As the social demographics continue to shift, there’s a good chance that folks in Hampton Roads will come to wonder what exactly they have in common with the people of Northern Virginia. We can only hope that they recognize the significance of the fact that the common ground they do share is packed bumper to bumper with cars and trucks waiting to move.