Al Alborn

Al Alborn

I was a Beltway bandit.  For 15 years, I pursued government projects for a series of three Fortune 200 companies.  I couldn’t have done it without your tax dollars.  

Transportation planning in Northern Virginia is about subsidizing the movement of labor from the more affordable suburbs like Prince William County to workplaces in Washington, Tysons, Reston, Fairfax and other points in or around the beltway to support government contracts and related businesses.

Beltway bandits are usually competing for a program.  Programs typically end up being housed close to the customer — on-site, in a contractor’s facility, or in leased facilities somewhere within or near the Beltway.  They are generally relatively autonomous units only bothered by customer visits for the occasional review.

Programs can be established anywhere.  The government’s penchant to have programs in or near the Beltway is the root cause of our transportation problem.  Traffic congestion is a symptom.  In my opinion, Northern Virginia’s transportation problem won’t be solved by spending tax dollars on new roads, buses or trains to treat that symptom.  It will be solved by changing the rules for how Beltway bandits and the government do business.  

The Federal Acquisition Regulation sets the rules for submitting proposals to compete for government business.  It is time to change the rules.  They should be rewritten to incentivize contractors to move work outside the Beltway.  The rules should reward proposals that include employees who telework from home or remote locations.  Moving people around efficiently should be an important consideration.  

Prince William’s Department of Economic Development is already positioned to leverage this idea.  It does a good job of tracking the kinds of development sites,  buildings, and facilities programs are looking for if (and this is the “if”) the rules of the game incentivize them to do so.  

The economic development department should work with the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, county and city governments, and our congressional delegation to “re-think” connecting people with the work they do as a systems problem rather than as a transportation problem.  It’s time to “connect the right dots.”

County government is always looking for ways to increase its business tax revenue.  Moving programs and the facilities necessary to support them to our county would achieve that goal.  This would fill empty office space and offer opportunities for new construction.  

For example, classified programs require a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. Building these facilities is a significant business opportunity for developers.  Programs rely on subcontractors.  Entrepreneurial opportunities for consulting, professional expertise, services, and supplies would flourish.  The economic development department could track federal opportunities, target Beltway bandits and even help with proposal writing to win programs.

This suggestion also transfers discretionary revenue from those employees to local small businesses.  Commuters build their lives around their program.  They eat lunch (Clyde’s Tysons Corner was my favorite), drop off their dry cleaning (often in the program building), buy cars and maintain then (I bought and maintained two cars in Tysons), shop for clothes (I miss Nordstrom), and do their Christmas shopping (Tysons Corner Center must make a fortune off Prince William residents) someplace convenient to where they work.  It’s time to bring that money spent elsewhere back to Prince William.

As a Beltway bandit, thanks for helping me achieve my business objectives and retire early.  As a taxpayer, I’m not that interested in subsidizing those who took my place.  Everything is a math problem.  The solution for this problem is obvious.  It’s time for Prince William to stop paying for new roads, and start collecting more business revenue and discretionary spending instead of sending that money somewhere else.

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.

(1) comment

Allen Muchnick

The concept of shifting more jobs to the outer suburbs of the Washington Region was modeled by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) back in 2006 and found not especially promising. The "Regional Mobility and Accessibility Study" reported:

"The 'Jobs Out' [Scenario] shows reduction in congestion levels in the core area, as well as in the inner areas of inner suburban jurisdictions. Increased congestion levels in this scenario were seen on segments of the regional transportation network serving the activity clusters where additional job growth was shifted, mostly in Prince William, Frederick and Charles counties."

Comparing all five land use scenarios modeled in that study, the Executive Summary noted: "The results of the scenario analysis showed that concentrating more of the region’s future housing growth in Regional Activity Clusters supported by an expanded regional transit network would increase transit use and daily walking and biking trips, while decreasing driving and congestion relative to current plans and growth trends. Scenarios that increased the concentration of future household and employment growth in regional activity centers supported by expanded transit connections also had small, but favorable impacts on regional accessibility, land use, air quality and other measures of effectiveness evaluated in this study."

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