By her own admission, Barb Emmons is a computer geek.
A database manager at a Reston technology firm, she also runs the Web site for a Loudoun County citizens group, and -- like about 18 million others -- is a loyal subscriber to America Online, the Internet behemoth whose headquarters is a few miles from her historic Leesburg home.
But Emmons and many of her friends are having second thoughts about their corporate neighbor.
Once-insular AOL has suddenly joined with other technology companies in advocating new and larger road projects in the region, aligning itself alongside chambers of commerce and other pillars of the business establishment. AOL chief executive Steve Case is helping lead the call for a proposed "techway" that would link the technology corridors of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland -- and open up wide tracts of land to development along the way.
"When I heard about that, I wanted to cancel my account right then," said Emmons, a member of the Sustainable Loudoun Network, a local environmental group. "That was a real good wake-up call. Our worst fears were realized. That's when we realized they are against us."
Technology companies are the latest target in the growth wars raging around Washington, taking some of the heat off the developers and home builders who usually bear the brunt of criticism from angry residents.
The frenetic growth of AOL, MCI WorldCom Inc. and other high-tech firms in Northern Virginia is quickly transforming the landscape and culture of western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun counties. By locating their new office complexes and leafy campuses in the once-rural areas around Dulles International Airport, the companies are bringing thousands of new employees who are snatching up houses as fast as they are built, clogging local roads with commuter traffic and pouring children into the schools -- adding to the troubles of local governments trying to provide services.
Now, many of those same companies are leading a bid for more transportation improvements -- with particular emphasis on building large highway projects such as the techway, which is really just a new name for a long-sought Potomac River crossing.
Tech leaders argue that Washington's status as the second-most congested area in the nation, after Los Angeles, is threatening their prosperity and their ability to attract good employees.
"The infrastructure, however you define that, has simply not kept up with the jobs," said Kathy Clark, a software company executive who chairs the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a group of about 1,100 high-tech firms. "You simply can't move around the area at any time of the day, and that's taking away from family and kids and the quality of life for our employees.
"I don't believe in rampant, uncontrolled growth, but all options need to be on the table. I don't think there's a solution that doesn't involve building more roads."
Traditional business and development leaders are thrilled to have the tech firms' economic clout and futuristic cache on their side. But slow-growth activists and other suburbanites are angry, increasingly singling out the sector for its perceived role in clogging traffic and encouraging sprawl.
It's an unusual and uncomfortable situation for the ballyhooed technology and communications industry, which is far more accustomed to kudos than criticism.
"They're increasingly being viewed as bogeymen," said Mark Looney, government affairs manager for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. "That's one of the reasons they're becoming more active in the community and in politics. They are the kind of businesses that most places are clamoring to get, so it's pretty ironic to hear that kind of attitude about them."
The first clear signs of enmity between the two sides appeared last year, when a Loudoun County study was released indicating that tax revenue from WorldCom's new 534-acre campus would barely pay for the new roads, schools and other services needed by as many as 30,000 new employees. One Loudoun supervisor worried openly that "it could very quickly become a little bit of a drain," while activists wondered whether large corporate campuses -- even clean, high-tech ones -- might be more trouble than they are worth.
It's been pretty much downhill ever since. AOL, after securing a lucrative tax break and other goodies from the Virginia General Assembly this year, plunged headlong into the growth and transportation debate by backing the techway and other road-building proposals. Other tech firms and organizations, including the regional technology council, have joined in a $3 million campaign aimed at garnering public support.
And just last week, a fledgling business group called Region, which includes AOL and thousands of other high-tech firms, proposed a sales-tax increase of 1 percentage point in Northern Virginia that would raise $1 billion over four years for new roads and schools.
Mark Stavish, AOL's vice president for human resources, said the company doesn't view itself as being in conflict with environmentalists or slow-growth activists by advocating new and expanded highways.
"I don't think that we're opposed to anybody," Stavish said. "What we're doing is trying to make a positive contribution to the community. . . . Many disparate interest groups are coalescing around the same objective: We need to maintain and in some cases improve our quality of life by doing some of these major infrastructure projects."
In many respects, the stance of Washington area technology firms runs counter to the current political tide in California's Silicon Valley and other high-tech bastions on the West Coast, where powerful business interests have been at the forefront in pushing "smart growth" strategies.
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the charitable arm of the Hewlett-Packard Corp., has earmarked $175 million to preserve California woodlands in the path of development, and a local business organization, the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, has lobbied aggressively for commuter trains, more HOV lanes and more affordable housing in San Jose. Up the coast in Oregon, Intel Corp. even agreed to pay financial penalties if it creates too many jobs and strains the infrastructure in suburban Portland.
Environmentalists complain that tech firms around Washington, by contrast, have joined old-line business interests in arguing for more roads rather than fresh solutions.
"If we're talking about the tech sector preparing new ways to handle information in the 21st century, we ought to be solving our transportation problems in a similar fashion," said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. "In the rush to accommodate transportation problems, and accommodate special development interests, they are charting a course to make the same mistakes as before."
Loudoun activist Gem Bingol said she expected "something different" from the tech firms. "Why get into the fray like this on the growth issue? If you're not going to be a good neighbor, at least be a quiet one."
Tech companies and their allies call such criticism inaccurate and unfair. The techway proposal would ideally include a commuter rail line in addition to highway lanes, for example, and many tech executives favor extending rail service to Dulles. They also point out that many firms already encourage flexible work hours, home offices and other strategies aimed at easing the pressure on local roads.
"I think it's an unfair characterization of the way they approach the situation," said Robert G. Templin Jr., a senior fellow at the high-tech Morino Institute in Reston and former president of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology near Dulles. "The thing they value more than anything else is a work and living environment that attracts and retains employees. Congestion, overcrowding, schools that don't have enough classrooms -- these are issues that they don't like."
But tech executives acknowledge that they are increasingly being criticized for contributing to the area's growth-related problems, both by locating their headquarters on the suburban fringe and by favoring policies that would encourage others to do the same.
Not surprisingly, the main flash point is transportation. Anne Crossman, founder and president of a Reston software firm called Completed Systems Inc., said the issue dominated a recent meeting of the local Chamber of Commerce.
"All the questions were about the tech community clogging up the roads," she said. "Technology people have cars, too, and we get stuck in traffic along with everyone else. We're all suffering.
"What the technology sector is saying is that we have to find a solution, and we have to find it fast. Even if we don't get one more technology job, we have a serious problem."