Technology executives who are reshaping the Washington area's economy are campaigning for a package of expensive cures for the region's jammed transportation network and an overhaul of an education system that doesn't produce enough skilled employees for their companies.
Led by America Online Inc. chief executive Steve Case, about 100 business leaders, public officials and educators today are set to endorse proposals for a new "techway," a road and rail connection linking the technology corridors of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland; a "model" ninth-grade curriculum designed to equip more students for tech careers; and a $30 million venture-capital fund to invest in local bioscience companies.
Intervening after years of stalemate over major transportation issues such as reconstructing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, leaders of the area's fast-growing technology companies are promising to invest both capital and political influence into plans for new road and rail connections in the region.
The strategies will be endorsed today at a semiannual meeting of the Potomac Conference in Washington, a gathering of the region's business, political and educational leaders sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade. These include a grass-roots lobbying campaign to drum up public support for new transportation investments and a $5 million political action committee to promote the region's technology agenda in Congress.
Business leaders attending the conference will be asked to pledge a total of at least $5 million initially to move the agenda forward.
The resources -- and the impatience -- of technology executives have energized a regional planning effort long stymied by the political rivalries dividing the District, Maryland and Virginia and the absence of common regional interests, conference participants said.
"We have new wealth" in the region because of the recent success of Internet and telecommunications companies in the suburbs, said William Lecos, vice president of the Board of Trade. Now, technology leaders are asking how that wealth should be reinvested, he said: "I don't mean in stock options. I mean invested in this community."
The goals that District representatives in the Potomac Conference are seeking include closer telecommunications and transportation links between the city and the suburbs' far larger technology centers and more help for District residents who need training for technology jobs.
The conference will call on technology companies to offer more internships to trainees and will propose a clearinghouse to evaluate the quality of technology training being offered in the region, said Marc Weiss, a D.C. development consultant.
The ability of technology executives to break through political deadlocks over transportation routes or to do something to lift educational performance has not been tested in the area.
Although the technology leaders command large personal fortunes and lead rapidly growing companies, they can't build roads and rail connections by themselves, they acknowledge.
The proposed "techway" that would create new road, rail and fiber-optic communications links between the technology clusters in Northern Virginia and Maryland's Interstate 270 corridor would run into fierce political opposition in Maryland. No financing plans or routes have been agreed upon.
The tech leaders will try to use their influence to persuade the public and political leaders to take a fresh look at such a plan that could shorten commuting times for tens of thousands of the region's workers, he said.
"We know [our employees] are running into difficulties commuting," said Capers McDonald, president of BioReliance Corp., a Rockville biotech company. "If government isn't going to deal with it, we have to think about addressing the problem."
Case, who will chair the conference meeting, struck a cautious tone: "I don't want to set expectations too high." But other conference participants said technology leaders have an unusual opportunity to cut through long-standing stalemates.
While local governments in Northern Virginia and Maryland continue to lure one another's technology companies, several dozen tech executives from both sides of the Potomac have been meeting for months to plan alliances. One goal is a marriage of the computer and Internet expertise in Northern Virginia with Maryland's biotech resources that could create new kinds of companies.
These meetings have led to an advisory committee of tech executives from Maryland and Virginia who will help biotech entrepreneurs get started, said McDonald, one of the conference leaders.
The conference has helped educators break new ground, said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College in the District. Last month, more than 50 area university presidents, school superintendents and teachers met with technology executives to devise the ninth-grade curriculum proposal.
"If you'd told me five years ago we could have that kind of meeting, I'd have said you're nuts," McGuire said.