Yet out here on the western edge of the Washington suburbs that have steadily turned the state blue, this election has been primarily and bitterly about traffic.
The voters are preoccupied by it. The candidates are sparring over it in their signs. Never mind the election’s statewide implications (Republicans hold just a three-seat advantage in the House of Delegates and a one-seat edge in the Senate), or what message the results might send to President Donald Trump. People are irate about Route 28, a stop-and-go arterial that each day squeezes tens of thousands of exurbanites toward Washington. During the worst morning rush hours, a 4-mile stretch of road passing through the district can take 35 minutes to drive, and that’s before anyone gets anywhere near the interstate to D.C.
“Fixing this road is the most important part of my legislative agenda,” said Danica Roem, the first-term Democratic state delegate here, sitting in her ’98 Honda Accord during Friday evening rush hour on the miserable road in question. “When you understand the historic nature of my candidacy and my incumbency, you know that’s a hell of a statement to make.”
Two years ago, Roem unseated the area’s 13-term, deeply conservative state assemblyman, becoming the first openly transgender state legislator in the country. Yes, she talks about equality, but it is not the top priority in a way that many people outside her district expect. “At the same time, trans people get stuck in traffic,” she said, looking out at taillights as far as the eye could see. “I am right now literally stuck on Route 28, and I am a transgender woman.”
Traffic has a way of subsuming all other issues here. It distorts daily life and separates families. It’s destroying what people who moved out here believed was the good life awaiting them, and what to do about that is a political question, too.
Suburbia is now the nation’s political battleground, as college-educated white voters have shifted toward the Democratic Party and as more racially and economically diverse residents have moved in. But this is a second kind of suburban politics: not the politics of abortion or gun control or bathroom bills, but the politics of development and traffic and growth.
The two currents are not unrelated. The same population boom in Northern Virginia that has turned more suburbs blue has also worsened the gridlock.
Life out here for many families is premised on a precarious trade-off: The housing is more affordable, the neighborhoods smell like campfires, and many homes have views of the woods now in full fall colors. But in exchange for those prizes, a vast majority of workers must leave the area, often heading toward Washington 30 miles to the east. The closest metro stop connected to the city is 15 miles away.
If the traffic is flowing freely, this is a reasonable bargain. If it’s not, the whole deal starts to collapse.
“As a practical matter, most of us realized that we were going to spend some time in our cars when we moved out here, but it has gotten ridiculous,” Kelly McGinn, the Republican running against Roem, told a conservative radio show, “The John Fredericks Show,” this fall.
McGinn, a past aide to former Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, has raised alarm about the leftward creep of the state Assembly. During the last legislative session, she protested as a concerned citizen in Richmond against ratification in Virginia of the Equal Rights Amendment (the bill failed but could be revived by Democrats next year).
But McGinn, too, has primarily been talking on the campaign trail not about the culture war, but the traffic war. She has pitched herself as a problem-solving mother — “Send in the mom!” her slogan says — in an appeal that subtly juxtaposes her against her opponent, even as they are both talking about Route 28 (Roem points out that she is also a stepmother).
“My children dubbed it ‘the yucky road’ as little kids,” McGinn said in another podcast interview. “There was a lot of crying on that road — mostly them, but some me, too.”
She declined to comment further on the topic for this article.
Route 28, a four-lane road interrupted by stoplights, has not changed substantially over the past 20 years as new subdivisions have been built all around it. Roem, who was born and raised in the area, recites the region’s transformation: new homes on land she remembers as a cow farm here, new homes on former grasslands there, new homes where there were once woods over there.
She pointed to one neighborhood that she said she knew would deliver her the election in 2017. It is recently full of townhome complexes and apartments, denser housing that political scientists have linked with more economically and racially diverse residents — and more Democratic voters.
These neighborhoods all funnel commuters onto Route 28, which leads to Interstate 66 and, ultimately, the defense contracting and government jobs closer to D.C. Along the road itself, an entire auto ecosystem has grown up to support the suburban bargain. There are new car dealer lots, used car lots, tire shops, brake inspectors, carwashes, gas stations, offices for renting cars, offices for insuring cars, offices for obtaining car titles and loans, and drive-through restaurants for commuters who must eat in the car.
During rush hour, workers sit at a standstill in their cars, staring at businesses designed to service those cars, lately with political volunteers waving signs aimed at the owners of those cars.
“Fix Route 28 now!” Roem’s signs say.
“Money, not studies,” one McGinn campaign sign counters. Another evokes Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 swipe at Jimmy Carter: “Is your commute better than 2 years ago?”
Of course, it is hard for anyone to say that the answer is yes, although Roem points to indicators that improvement is coming. Further up the road, the interstate interchange is under construction in an effort to speed up traffic. And a state study costing about $300,000 that Roem has pushed is also examining how intersections on Route 28 might be redesigned.
But transportation projects do not move at the pace of every-two-year elections. That makes traffic a risky issue to run on, even if it’s the top concern voters cite. Roem has tried to buy some patience with far wonkier details than McGinn has offered. Back in her campaign office in a modest office building on the site of a large car sales lot, Roem sketched alternative intersection designs on the back of a volunteer sign-up sheet. With enough creativity, she argues, transportation engineers can remove the stoplights that stall traffic on Route 28.
She acknowledges that the area ultimately needs more than engineering fixes. Workers need more freedom to work remotely. The area itself needs more high-paying jobs so people do not have to drive 60 miles round-trip to find them. Local governments need to stop approving new developments with no plans to simultaneously invest in infrastructure. But the most tempting solution is to change the road, not the terms of the bargain itself.
In the neighborhoods around Route 28 where Roem was canvassing a few days before the election, voters offered horror stories of waking up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic into the city, or eating family dinners at 9 p.m. to accommodate parents commuting home.
“It’s not healthy. I intensely dislike it,” said Audrey Coffey of the family routine that has evolved around her husband’s commute toward the city. He never leaves the Washington area before 7 p.m., to make the drive manageable. “We knew we were not lessening his commute when we bought this home,” Coffey, a teacher, said. “We knew it would only get worse.”
If either candidate here lures more state aid for the region’s roads, it is undoubtedly true that in the time it takes to improve them, still more people will move in. But Roem struggles to picture life that far in advance, once all her dream alternative intersections have been built.
“Once the road is fixed,” she said, now driving through the dark, “I’m going to re-evaluate my entire life.”
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