Timothy M. Kaine made his first public appearance as Virginia's governor-elect here Wednesday evening, holding a town hall meeting on transportation, the issue that he has said is likely to define his four years in office.
Standing before several hundred local officials, residents and community activists in the downtown area, Kaine (D) took a few minutes to reiterate his commitment to solving what he termed the state's most urgent need. He was careful, however, not to advocate specific plans to raise money for transportation projects.
"We will have some significant challenges to face in the next four years, and this gives us a chance to talk about some of those challenges," Kaine told the crowd. "There always seems to be an issue that is complicated and tough . . . and transportation is that issue for the next governor."
Wednesday's forum was the first in a series of stops for Kaine in the coming weeks, including an appearance Nov. 29 in Manassas. The script will be the same at each -- how the state can improve its crumbling road and rail network. Other meetings are scheduled in Newport News, suburban Richmond and southwest Virginia, with more stops planned.
The town meetings fulfill a campaign promise Kaine made to voters during the race for governor, which ended when Kaine beat Republican Jerry W. Kilgore on Nov. 8. Kaine had vowed to make transportation his top priority.
Kaine began the tour in generally unfriendly territory. Although Roanoke supported him over Kilgore in the election, most of the counties surrounding the city of 92,000 people voted for Kilgore. But the forum's participants greeted Kaine warmly Wednesday, giving him a standing ovation as he walked into an atrium at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
The discussion illustrated the range of issues that Kaine is likely to hear about in the coming weeks: how local projects will be funded and which ones should be built. Kaine spent most of the meeting listening to concerns many residents expressed about a potential expansion of Interstate 81. Others advocated increasing sales and gas taxes to finance road projects.
But some said that "taxing and paving" would not solve the state's problems.
"We need to re-engineer our communities around the needs of people and not around the needs of cars," said Michael Abraham of nearby Christiansburg.
State transportation experts, although supporting the concept of Kaine's forums, said they were not expecting to hear specific plans from the governor-elect during his swing across the state.
"He's going to hear more songs than a Broadway musical," said Steve Haner, the lobbyist for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and a spokesman for the advocacy group Virginians for Better Transportation. "There remains a lot of debate, a lot of discussion and a lot of disagreement on these things, and I suspect he will get them all on this issue."
"He isn't giving any indication of which way he wants to go on any of this," Haner added. "I think it's going to be wide open. I'm not expecting any deep insights."
As a candidate, Kaine said that he would designate surplus state revenue and tax revenue from insurance premiums for transportation projects. He also said he would explore public-private ventures to build roads and rail lines.
But to the dismay of many transportation advocates, he eschewed new money for roads until the state locks up its transportation trust fund, mandating that it not be spent on other needs. There he will find common ground with House delegates, who have said repeatedly that such a lock is a top priority.
Shortly after his inauguration Jan. 14, Kaine could find himself in the middle of a legislative struggle over proposals to raise taxes to support transportation projects. Leading House Republicans said this week that a large chunk of additional money brought in by a good state economy should be devoted to transportation improvements. A tax increase to provide new, continuing revenue for roads would be unlikely to succeed in the House, they said.
In the Senate, a commission is working on a transportation package that is expected to suggest raising billions of dollars in new funds.
"I really view [transportation] as the major theme of the 2006 legislative session," Kaine said. "I want to work in a dramatic way . . . to really get something done."