By David Schultz
The Virginia General Assembly is wrapping up its 2010 session this weekend and there's still no solution in sight for Northern Virginia's crippling traffic congestion. The continued failure to solve this problem is creating a rift within the Commonwealth's Republican party.
If you drive north from Dulles Airport for about 15 minutes -or 20 minutes, or 40 minutes, depending on the traffic- you'll eventually run into the Janelia Farm Research Campus, a sprawling, 689-acre facility that houses of some of the world's top neuroscientists.
Those at the campus specialize in cutting-edge research. "We work in really small instrumentation," says Cheryl Moore, Janelia Farm's chief operating officer, "Little devices to measure the electrical impulses in the brain of a mouse or a fly."
When the campus opened in 2006, Moore was responsible for hiring its legion of employees. She says that turned out to be surprisingly difficult.
"We've been very serious with some people who lived in Maryland who we thought would commute in. And after they made the trek a couple times for the interviews, they just decided it was too far," Moore says. "We even had someone who, on the way to her first day of work after she'd accepted the position, who was stuck in traffic for-I don't know-an hour and a half or two hours. She quit on her cell phone on her way in to work."
Businesses across Northern Virginia have horror stories just like that one.
Lawmakers in Richmond have tried to address this problem many times, but one of the main sticking points is Republican opposition to raising taxes. Delegate Dave Albo, a Republican who represents Fairfax County, says in the past he has supported a regional tax increase with the money raised in Northern Virginia-and staying there. And he might support it again in the future, but not right now.
"No one's raising taxes during a recession," Albo says. "That's economic disaster. I learned that when I was at University of Virginia in Economics 202 Macro. You can't raise taxes during a recession. So this issue won't come up again until the economy recovers."
For Tony Howard, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, that's not an acceptable answer. He says local business execs are rethinking their political allegiances.
"Folks in the business community have given up-and I think this has happened in no less than the last ten years-have just given up caring what uniform color the politician is wearing, whether it's red or it's blue," says Howard.
Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University, says the tax-for-transportation issue will define the future of the Commonwealth's GOP. He says there are Republicans from Northern Virginia-like Dave Albo-who are open to a limited tax increase.
"But then you have the grass roots activists in the Republican Party-the conservative movement-that very strongly opposes increased taxes for any purpose," says Rozell. "And so you have this battle brewing; not just brewing, but has existed for some time now, within the Republican Party itself over the whole issue of transportation and taxes."
So it's probably no coincidence that Republicans are talking up the issues where they have the solid suport of businesses, such as their opposition to weakening Virginia's right-to-work laws.
"It's good politics on the part of Republicans to focus on other issues where they have a real strong connection to the business community in order to maintain that support," Rozell says. "Not just transportation."
But even if they keep emphasizing winning issues, it will still be a tough sell for the GOP to keep Northern Virginia's CEOs in their corner, with gridlock in the state capitol mirroring gridlock on the region's roads.