Washington area business leaders will launch a $3 million grass-roots political campaign to win public support for a series of major bridge, highway and rail projects intended to ease the region's worsening traffic congestion.
The campaign endorsed yesterday at a conference of regional leaders will put some of the area's leading technology executives into the thick of long-running political battles. A replacement for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the proposed construction of an intercounty connector highway linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and a new highway link between Interstate 270 in Maryland and Northern Virginia north of the Capital Beltway are at the top of the group's agenda.
"Based on the reaction we got [at the conference] from executives with hundreds of thousands of employees in the Washington region, we have a green light to move ahead," said Gus Bauman, former chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "This group wants to have something happen," said Bauman, co-chair of the conference's transportation group.
The transportation campaign is one of a half-dozen initiatives endorsed yesterday at the conference, organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Co-chaired by Steve Case, chief executive of America Online Inc., the Potomac Conference represents the first major intervention by the area's expanding number of technology executives into some of the region's key transportation, education and economic issues.
"Steve and his crowd won't let this just be another feel-good session," said Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., one of the region's most vociferous advocates of highway expansion.
Although the individual responses of more than 100 conference participants haven't been tallied, conference organizers said they have enough support to push forward with their strategy.
Other plans include the design of a model social studies curriculum for the region's eighth- and ninth-grade classes that will involve advanced uses of Internet technology; the creation of a $30 million venture capital fund to help start-up biotechnology companies; and a strategy to coordinate high-tech job opportunities in the region.
Board of Trade President John R. Tydings said business leaders will have to raise about $5 million to carry all the conference's initiatives forward in the coming year, and more after that.
The transportation plan represents a direct political challenge to environmentalists and slower-growth advocates in the region, a stance that drew criticism from a conference guest speaker. "I'm not seeing any dialogue" with environmentalists, "and that's too bad," said author and nationally syndicated columnist Neil R. Peirce, who has studied urban policies in dozens of cities. "We need to move beyond simplistic notions of clout."
Bauman and other supporters of the transportation campaign responded that the region will choke on its traffic unless new roads, rail and bridge links are built.
The education initiative was positively received by business and education leaders at the conference, some of whom have been drafting the plan since January. But some participants asked how a regional approach would work in an area with separate school systems in the District, Maryland and Virginia, where curriculums and educational standards are shaped by strong local and state forces.
Fairfax County Assistant School Superintendent Nancy Sprague said the plan's goal is not to create entirely new social studies curriculums, but to equip teachers and classrooms throughout the region with tools for doing research on the Internet.
The Internet "is already here," but teachers and administrators haven't learned how to help students use it effectively and appropriately, she said.
Although the approach is still being designed, it received some early support from area educators and parent leaders who were not at the conference.
"It sounds to me like the technology community is taking a proactive role in some of the issues we've all been deadlocked on," said Rosemary Lynch, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "It sounds like a wonderful plan."
But Lynch and others said the plan will work only if the technology community provides additional resources to school districts to help them implement the curriculum. Teacher training will be a critical component.
Several studies have shown that although schools are equipping their classrooms with computers and Internet connections, teachers receive little training in how to use technology in lessons. Many teachers believe their technology skills lag behind those of their students.
Higher education officials also expressed support for the proposal and the fact that university officials are part of the discussions. "This is a good sign," said Gary Galluzzo, dean of George Mason University's Graduate School of Education.
"I think it's terrific that there is such an interest on the part of the business community to partner with the education community in an effort to meet what are our common goals," said Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech.
Domenech and other educators, however, said developing a model curriculum that can be used by the various jurisdictions will be more difficult. Any such plan would have to be compatible with not only the differing state standards in Maryland and Virginia but also individual districts' programs of study.
Galluzzo agreed: "It will be a challenge, but it's not un-doable."
CAPTION: Developer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. is optimistic about the business effort.