Washington Metroplex Keeps Expanding

D’Vera Cohn and Amy Gardner have an interesting front page piece in today’s WaPo about the continued rapid expansion of the D.C. exurbs, with counties several hours’ drive away leading the country in growth.

Photo: The Washington area’s powerful economy has pushed out suburban sprawl so far that two semirural counties south of Fredericksburg have become bustling commuter frontiers that rank for the first time among the fastest-growing communities in the nation. Newly developing Caroline and King George counties have joined Loudoun County, which has been on each annual list since 2000, according to census figures for last year released today. Most people moving to all three come from older areas, where growth has slowed and new immigrants often replace residents who have left.

The exurbs produced most of the region’s growth last year, when the Washington area’s population increased to nearly 6 million. Halfway through the decade, the 8 percent growth rate for the region, which stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge, is on track to equal that of the 1990s. Washington area counties are driving most of the growth in Maryland and Virginia, figures covering the year that ended July 1 show. Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William and St. Mary’s counties added more residents in the past five years than in the previous 10, and Charles added nearly as many.

But momentum is moving beyond those counties. Ranked just behind Loudoun, whose 2005 growth rate ranked eighth in the country, were King George and Caroline counties, two small jurisdictions more likely in the past to draw state employees from Richmond than federal or high-tech workers from the capital region. Now, most of their new residents come from Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Charles and other counties closer to Washington.

Those new residents are seeking lower-priced housing, bigger lots and less congested roads than established neighborhoods offer. Some are bypassing other fast-growing counties that imposed development restraints. Age-restricted housing and waterfront property in Caroline and King George also are drawing retirees and “pre-retirees,” people in their fifties who plan to work for a few more years.

Many new residents commute through Washington area gridlock. Portia Cobb, 37, leaves home in Caroline County at 4 a.m. each day to drive her van pool 70 miles to the District, where she is a manager at a printing company. She used to live in the city, and now she takes about an hour to get there in the morning. “This is the only way I could live comfortably and have some space and privacy,” said Cobb, who paid $224,000 last year for her four-bedroom, three-bath, split-foyer rambler. “I went there to get away from the hustle and bustle and to get to easy living.”

This type of commute is nothing unusual for people who work in Los Angeles or Manhattan. Still, it’s a huge trade-off to spend that many hours driving back and forth to work. Then again, Cobb’s house would cost a minimum of $800,000 in the near suburbs and well over $1 million in D.C. — and that’s for a house that’s decades old and on a lot the size of a postage stamp.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The longest commute I have ever had was about 20 minutes and I thought that was to long. I work from home now, so have a 15 second commute up the stairs. This is just crazy. If you take out 8 hours to sleep, 8 hours for work, then a 2 hour commute is a fourth of “your time”.

  2. McGehee says:

    My wife’s not going to be happy about this — her family has roots in Caroline County and one of her mother’s cousins owns a farm the family’s owned since (I believe) antebellum days.

    Property taxes have already been a burden on keeping that land.

  3. DC Loser says:

    At least in NYC, the long commute is made bearable by a great public transit network. You can sleep or read on the train or bus. In DC, the trains are few and far in between so you’re left stuck on the road.

  4. James Joyner says:

    McG: Yep, property taxes in these parts are a bear.

    DCL: Agreed. Metro is probably better than the NYC subways where you can get it but the vast majority of the people around here don’t live within walking distance of a Metro stop.

  5. DC Loser says:

    That commute may be only an hour, but that’s at 4 a.m. If she leaves at 6 a.m., the drive will be more like 2 hours. I-95 is a parking lot from Fredericksburg all the way to the 14 St. Bridge into DC. Even the HOV lanes are now clogged due to cheaters and hybrids using those lanes.

  6. Mark says:

    If I could telecommute, this would certainly be an attractive option. Unfortunately, I cannot do it. Yet…

  7. Jonk says:

    Housing costs in DC are a joke, a bad joke — 800k for a brick and block rambler in NOVA is a bit over the top. I don’t know how most government workers are supposed to make it.

    I expect a mini-crash in the area when a lot of the contracting work dries out when an attempt is made to actually balance the budget…but the damage is already done, and for the most part there is no going back.

  8. denise says:

    This is one reason I will stay in Wichita, Kansas. You can live in a nice older neighborhood in a nice house that costs around $140,000 and have a 10-minute drive to downtown. Or you can live in a really nice outlying neighborhood and have a 20-minute drive from your really nice $250,000 house.

    And then when you want the amenities of DC or NY or LA, you can fly there (and you can drive to the Wichita airport in about 15 minutes too). It’s expensive to fly out of here, but you make up for it in less than one mortgage payment.

  9. oldtom says:

    How about starting a process to move Dept’s out of the DC area?
    Interior to N/S Dakota or Wyoming
    Agriculture to Kansas, Nebraska
    HUD to Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, IN areas
    Energy to LA,NM or TX
    VA to Northern CA, TX, Western PA or Northern NY State

    Or sub-depts, eg ICE to a border state, near the border (which leaves out CA due to costs)

    Phase it in to avoid paying relo/disruption. We have the technology to telecommute.Demand x free seats from Airlines that pass pension plans to the Feds. Keep liason offices in DC.

    Use BRAC bases?

    Was that a pig that just flew by?