Northern Virginia business leaders may be a conservative, watch-the-bottom-line crowd, but they have adopted anequally conservative, money-conscious target as their favorite whipping boy: Virginia's Republican governor, James S. Gilmore III.
The dividing issue is how to fix--or at least tame--the daily traffic snarls in Northern Virginia that engulf commuters on their drives to and from work and at times threaten to stop the wheels of commerce. In this sparring match, the comity that might exist between people who would otherwise be philosophical soul mates has withered in recent weeks.
Gilmore rode into the governor's mansion on the strength of a campaign pledge to virtually do away with the personal property taxes on cars that local governments impose on Virginians.
With that legacy, Gilmore has taken a staunch no-new-taxes pledge when it comes to paying the freight for the massive road-building, lane-widening, bridge-constructing plans that numerous Northern Virginia business leaders and local and state politicians consider essential over the next decade or so.
The governor recently appointed a study commission to look at transportation funding issues. One key state lawmaker, Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the governor promised him that he'd "come up with something by Labor Day," less than two months before all 140 seats in the state General Assembly are at stake in the Nov. 2 election.
But the business leaders, fearing that the region's robust economy will burst as the tie-ups become knottier, scoff at Gilmore's no-new-tax stand and howl at the thought of another traffic study. These leaders aren't anxious for a tax increase, but say they're incredulous that the governor would rule out increased taxation to fix a problem they say has far surpassed patchwork solutions. Northern Virginia's top transportation panel, the Transportation Coordinating Council, says that $11 billion in new construction is needed to ease congestion but would not eliminate it.
Dan R. Bannister, chairman of the Northern Virginia Roundtable, a collection of the area's most influential corporate chieftains, said, "We've studied it enough. . . . Now it's time for action.
"We do not know whether it will take new taxes," said Bannister, chairman of DynCorp, a technology and technical services giant in Reston. "If it takes more taxes, if that's the only solution, we have to face that."
While politicians debate what projects to build and how to fund them, Bannister said, workers and their bosses are stewing in traffic. "That's not a very attractive thing to say to prospective employers: Come to Northern Virginia, we've got the second-worst traffic in the country," he said.
Asked about the attacks on Gilmore's transportation stance, Mark A. Miner, the governor's spokesman, said: "Criticism does not help the person stuck in traffic. [Gilmore] will be making an announcement in the near future."
But James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said of Gilmore, "We think he's not taking a broad enough look at this, not being as responsive as he should be. We've got a crisis here. You've got all these firms like America Online and Oracle who don't have to be here" because their technology work could be done anywhere.
"If you can't see your kids, go to their ball game, go to a museum downtown" because of the mounting traffic, said Dyke, a Fairfax lawyer, "it's obvious there's a problem. When businesses start moving away, then you'll have an unclogged Beltway."
John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., the dean of Northern Virginia real estate developers, was even blunter in his dismay with Gilmore's performance in dealing with Northern Virginia's transportation woes.
"He's still in total denial--see no need, hear no need, feel no need," Hazel said. "No solutions are in process, zero, none. He's down to blaming the highway department. That's reprehensible."
Said David Guernsey, president of the office products firm in Chantilly that bears his name, "There's just a leadership vacuum here. It's not just the governor," but state and local politicians as well.
Gilmore, popular with many voters for winning legislative approval for his push to virtually end the car tax in 2002, has often sat in Northern Virginia's clogged traffic himself. But he's been unmoved by the appeals for new tax revenue as a way of keeping commuters moving on the roadways.
He has said his commission is charged with finding innovative transportation funding solutions, be they for road, rail or mass transit projects.
"If you just raise taxes without going through any of that process . . . that just means you're for taxes," he recently told The Post. "So if the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce is for tax increases, I do not join them in that."
On another recent occasion, the governor called into his scheduled WTOP radio talk show from his car while he was caught in a traffic jam and told one caller, "Smaller minds and people who just aren't very thoughtful immediately say, 'Well, you've got to have more money, then obviously you gotta go raise taxes.'
"That's not true at all," he said. "Good Lord, let's get innovative and creative and start to think about things instead of just always diving into taxpayers' pocketbooks."
As for businessmen looking at higher taxes for highway construction, Gilmore said, "They're rich and they're powerful and they've forgotten about the average working man and woman."
For all their rancor at the governor, business leaders in Northern Virginia are not at all unified in figuring out what major projects would curtail the traffic jams the most. Several said construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge was one essential, but hardly the only one.
The Roundtable has called for completion of the Fairfax County Parkway, extension of a rail line from Metro's West Falls Church station to Washington-Dulles International Airport, widening of large segments of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66 and construction of a northern Potomac River bridge leading from Fairfax into Montgomery County.
Other business leaders have concentrated on building a rail line to the vast, crowded collection of offices and stores at Tysons Corner.
Widening the Beltway or building a rail line through Tysons and on to Dulles is "merely designed to take the heat off the problem," Hazel said. "We need more bridges across the river." Hazel said such a Potomac crossing could be made by extending Route 28 or the county parkway northward into Montgomery, eventually connecting with Interstate 270 near Rockville.
Whatever the ultimate solutions, Hazel said "business doesn't have a choice anymore" but to push for new funding. "We've got a decade of difficulty ahead after a decade of delusion," Hazel concluded.
Major projects called for by the Northern Virginia Roundtable to relieve transportation congestion (after completion of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge):
Including a northern Potomac River crossing
Widening of Beltway:
Between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange
Widening of I-66:
Between Route 234 in Manassas and the District
Fairfax County Parkway:
Completion of all four planned parkway projects
( noted on map)
A rail line:
From the West Falls Church Metro station to Dulles International Airport