Gov. James S. Gilmore III's abrupt dismissal of his top roads official, Transportation Commissioner David R. Gehr, has raised more questions around Capitol Square than it has answered. But one thing is clear: Few lawmakers believe the reasons Gilmore gave for Gehr's firing.

Northern Virginians in particular have risen to the defense of Gehr, a former district engineer for the region. Many believed that in Gehr they had an ally at the head of the Virginia Department of Transportation. They were clamoring for action on roads, but axing a friend was not what they had in mind.

"David Gehr was the most knowledgeable person to come through that department, period," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "No one was even close."

Republicans are saying much the same thing, but some argue that the political need to show action on the roads problem made Gilmore's action necessary. As for the environmental sins that Gehr supposedly oversaw at VDOT--and that Gilmore cited in removing him--many lawmakers are calling those a pretense to shake up a department that had become an embarrassment to the governor.

That leads to the big questions remaining about Gehr's ouster: How did Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra survive? How much longer will she?

At the news conference on Gehr, reporters asked the governor whether he was satisfied with Ybarra. He replied with a curt "Yes, I am," but he didn't offer any words of praise.

Gilmore administration officials say Ybarra is still on the job because she was not the problem at VDOT; Gehr was. But others recall that Ybarra was a Gilmore appointee, and Gehr was appointed by then-Gov. George Allen, making him more vulnerable.

Another well-traveled theory notes that Gilmore has only two women in his Cabinet: Ybarra and Secretary of the Commonwealth Anne Petera, who is less prominent in policymaking. Dismissing the administration's highest-profile woman might have focused attention on how heavy Gilmore's inner circle is with men.

Wrestling With That Coke Issue

Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) had a rare moment of fluster earlier last week when reporters pressed him about rumors that his pick for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has used cocaine.

Bush has refused--so far--to discuss allegations of drug use in detail, leaving supporters such as Gilmore, a former county prosecutor, in potentially awkward spots.

Here's a transcript of Gilmore's exchange with Ellen Qualls, the Richmond reporter for television station WDBJ in Roanoke, and Tyler Whitley, of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Qualls: Do you think that Governor Bush used cocaine? And does it matter to you?

Gilmore: I don't know whether Governor Bush used cocaine or not.

Qualls: Does it matter?

Gilmore: Does it matter? Well, I think that he has said that there has to be some zone of privacy. I think that that is beginning, for the first time, to set off in the right direction. That's what I think.

Qualls: So you don't want us to know?

Gilmore: I don't know.

Whitley: When you were commonwealth's attorney, did you send people to jail for cocaine use?

Gilmore: I certainly did. I certainly did.

Cool to a Sales Tax Increase Local leaders eagerly have joined state legislators in the call for more money to pay for new and wider roads in Northern Virginia. But three months before local elections, raising the sales tax isn't what most of them have in mind.

A fledgling 15,000-member business group called Region recently proposed raising nearly $1 billion over four years by raising sales taxes in the region by 1 percentage point, from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent. A 10-point plan by the group also includes calls to tap income-tax revenue and state surpluses for roads and schools.

The sales tax idea was greeted coolly by most state legislators, supervisors and other Northern Virginia leaders. Gilmore has signaled he will oppose any new taxes for road improvements.

Stewart Schwartz, a spokesman for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the proposed sales tax increase would amount to a taxpayer subsidy that would encourage even more development in areas without adequate public services. But Schwartz said he welcomed Region's call for tax breaks and other incentives to encourage development near transit lines and other areas inside the Capital Beltway.

Any sales tax increase would have to be approved by voters. But first, Gilmore and legislators would have to agree to let Northern Virginia localities pursue the idea.

A poll conducted this year by Region found that 56 percent of residents in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties would favor a 1 percent sales tax increase if the money was devoted to transportation.

Staff writers Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.