The Loudoun Economic Development Commission, a round table of business representatives who advise the Board of Supervisors on such issues as higher education and growth, has decided to create a transportation advocacy committee.
The commission made the decision Friday at the end of its monthly meeting after hearing from representatives of several state transportation groups who said business leaders have not been consistently involved in issues involving traffic congestion, road construction and public transportation.
"There is a lack of advocacy," said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a regional business group. Also addressing the commission were Hobie Mitchell, vice president of land development for the South Riding community and a member of the governor's Commission on Transportation Policy; Tom Farley, the Northern Virginia district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation; and Ron Kirby, chief transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"It's all about numbers," Chase said, and now, residents who oppose highway projects show up at public meetings in far greater numbers than those who favor them.
Barb Emmons, a member of the Sustainable Loudoun Network, an environmental group, is one of those who regularly attends public meetings. Interviewed after the meeting, she said she is not surprised that business groups are worried--and beginning to organize to lobby for more road construction.
"It boils down to politics," she said, and businesses "are seeing that the citizens are starting to mobilize."
Emmons, who lives a few miles outside Leesburg's historic district and works in Reston, said businesses now see a threat in anti-road activists like her. "It's going to be a war, and this is going to be a really ugly couple of months before the elections," she said.
The war is already on--between residents who favor slow growth and tend to oppose building new roads on one side and businesses that see better roads as essential to easier commuting as well as successful recruiting of employees. Other transportation options--such as car pooling and public transit--often appeal to both sides, but for many businesses, building new and bigger roads is a key component.
On a regional level, several company networks have sprung up to lobby for new roads to handle commuter traffic. For example, Region, a coalition of more than 15,000 businesses including America Online Inc., has been promoting the construction of a "techway" connecting Northern Virginia and the suburbs of Maryland. The group also addresses education issues.
Brian Cullen, of Keane Enterprises, was named to head the Economic Development Commission's ad hoc committee. Cullen, who 12 years ago sat on a commission responsible for creating a special tax district to pay for the expansion of Route 28, said the committee will focus on issues directly affecting Loudoun. He said the group also will try to reach across the river to businesses in the Maryland suburbs to organize grass-roots support for such projects as the long-sought Potomac River crossing, or "techway."
"It is alarming that there is no real dialogue taking place [among businesses] on another Potomac crossing," commission member Kerry Skeen, president of Dulles-based Atlantic Coast Airlines, said in a recent interview. At Friday's meeting, Skeen said Atlantic Coast, one of the county's largest employers, plans to have a representative on the new committee.
Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, said chamber officials have been meeting "quietly" with members of other chambers in Montgomery and Frederick counties to gauge their interest in a river-crossing project.
Collins said the chamber would welcome the commission's help on transportation issues. "The chamber has always been the advocate on public policy matters," he said. "The problem is there are so many issues out there that affect businesses." As a result, he said, issues tend to fall off the agenda.
But now, even smaller companies, such as those that make up most of the Loudoun chamber's membership, are facing such problems as decreased productivity as a result of tired commuters and frustrated recruiters who cannot persuade potential employees to drive long distances to fill vacancies.
As a result, more local groups will make the transportation issue a full-time concern, rather than a topic of small talk and horror stories before meetings, said Bob Grow, of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a regional chamber of commerce.
"The consciousness is rising," he said.
That means more work for groups such as Emmons's, which recently came out against the proposed techway. All the activity is becoming tiring, Emmons said.
"There's a new pro-business group popping up . . . to counter us every five minutes," she said.