The debate is set, fittingly, on a rural road called Crossroads Parkway.
At the end of the road -- past the Baptist church, past the gun packaging factory, past the steel plant and through the thick Spotsylvania County woods that you couldn't give away 20 years ago and that now go for $100,000 an acre -- is the spot.
Today it's just a parking lot for commuter trains, the place where Virginia Railway Express overnights its silver cars. During the day, they carry thousands of people from the region on the southern lip of Washington to and from their jobs in and around the city. But next month, voters will say whether they think Spotsylvania should go from a train storage site to an actual member of the train system, complete with a stop, a station and the 2 percent gas tax VRE requires participating communities to levy.
Thus far, those in the growing community of Spotsylvania commuters have joined the masses on Interstate 95 at dawn or driven to VRE stations in Fredericksburg or Stafford, which have had train service since VRE started in 1992. Competition for parking in those communities has turned Spotsylvanians into unwelcome intruders akin to wedding crashers. But for 13 years, the county has resisted joining the commuter rail system.
The county supervisors' decision in June to put the VRE question on the ballot is one element of an identity crisis Spotsylvania has been experiencing since newcomers began arriving in droves 10 to 15 years ago. Residents are debating whether joining commuter rail is also about joining suburbia, yielding to a different -- and possibly less conservative -- philosophy about government spending and submitting to the hustle-bustle of Northern Virginia values.
The VRE item is part of a laundry list of projects on a bond referendum, from road paving and repair to school construction to new courts and a library expansion. If everything passes, the county would be authorized to borrow $277 million. The impact on taxpayers would vary depending on interest rates and other factors, but county officials estimate that those who own an average-priced home -- which in Spotsylvania this year was valued at $215,000 -- would pay about $40 per month more in taxes. That would be the largest tax increase in county history.
Tony Self grew up near the VRE site and spent half the 1980s and all of the 1990s driving up and down I-95 to his job as a steamfitter at Quantico Marine Base. Four years ago, he became a minister, and he is now pastor of the 350-family Crossroads Baptist Church, which sits near the site of the potential station.
As a preacher, he welcomes the newcomers the rail service would encourage: "Get 'em in here, get 'em saved," is how he puts it. But as a native, he sees all the people, traffic and endless building. "We're so messed up here," he said.
"And have you seen the price on it?" said Self, 39, of VRE tickets. (A monthly ticket to commute between Fredericksburg and Washington is $230.60.) He's not sure if joining VRE would help reduce traffic or would increase it by giving developers another selling point, but in his view, the culture the rail represents has taken away the community intimacy he grew up with.
"It's sickening," he said.
Bo Kirchner knows about small-town life. He grew up in McLean in the 1960s, with neighbors who knew one another and were around to watch one another's children. Seeing that evaporate in Northern Virginia, Kirchner, 49, and his wife moved their three boys first to Shepherdstown, W.Va., and then, when his job moved, to Spotsylvania in 1999. "We wanted to be in a pastoral community," he said.
"My sense is that people in Northern Virginia come and go," he said. "They flip their homes frequently and are very busy with jobs that are a long commute from home."
Which sounds a lot like Kirchner. As general manager of an Alexandria travel company, he commutes on VRE at least an hour and a half each way. His wife commutes to the same office half of the week and works at home the other half.
But Kirchner doesn't see himself as part of the problem he is describing.
"Our kids walk out the door, and they are in the neighborhood with their friends. I don't think people in Northern Virginia feel they can do that. They need to shuttle their kids to this activity or that, instead of just letting them play with the neighborhood kids."
Kirchner tends to vote for Democrats but said he keeps an "open mind" and votes for U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican. He said he will vote for the $144 million transportation question, which includes $12.9 million for VRE, even though he considers the gas tax "regressive" and an unfair burden on the poor. Regardless, he said, he could accept his taxes going up to pay for improved transportation -- a key difference he has with many native Spotsylvanians, who feel that the state or developers should pay the bill. The county has never had a bond referendum for transportation, and some people see it as a dangerous precedent.
"I think, before traffic comes to a standstill in the Fredericksburg region, solutions have to be found," he said. "And if bonds are the best way to fund the projects -- the only way -- I think we have to swallow hard and say yes."
But the question of what are necessary services has a cultural component. New residents have clashed with older ones recently on issues such as whether Spotsylvania should pay for 24-hour ambulance service throughout the county.
"It's double taxation. People here think [the Virginia Department of Transportation] should pay for the roads, and it shouldn't be on the real estate tax," said Emmitt Marshall, who has represented the rural Berkeley District on the Board of Supervisors for 25 years and whose father was on the board for 12 years before that. "I can't support it."
For a decade, opposition to VRE has had one image: rural residents making local wages being forced to subsidize newcomers who commute north to higher-paying jobs. But in recent years, the discussion has expanded. For example, some note that economic development officials are focusing on bringing better jobs closer to home, and they wonder if commuter rail would work against that.
Joe Bumbrey, who grew up in the area and until recently hosted a civic affairs show on local cable television, said the sprawl problems were created by "narrow-minded" native county leaders who let developers build with abandon. VRE would help take traffic off the roads, he said, and is part of adapting to a more contemporary mindset.
"We have to move into the mainstream," said Bumbrey, 67. "This is where this area is headed, and there is no way Spotsylvania can keep standing alone."
The debate probably will not end next month, regardless of what Spotsylvania decides. VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the company has been speaking with Fauquier and Caroline counties, and that Culpeper and Orange counties have included VRE for consideration in their transportation plans.