Northern Virginia's political and business establishment struggled yesterday to understand the disconnect between its unprecedented push for a transportation tax and the lopsided refusal by voters Tuesday to offer up more of their money to build roads and expand mass transit.
Elected officials, executives, tax opponents and voters themselves said the messages coming out of a rare regionwide election include deep mistrust in state government, a hardening opposition to new taxes, and a growing sentiment that sprawling development can be blamed for some of the region's ills.
Those messages will probably translate into new attempts by elected officials and environmentalists to win power to control growth, several said yesterday. Business leaders and anti-tax activists vowed to harness the apparent mistrust of Richmond to bring more money to Northern Virginia. And transportation officials pledged to find more targeted, if less ambitious, solutions to the area's gridlock.
"Two things need to occur," said Scott K. York (R-At Large), chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. "We should, as a region, look at how we are planning. Second, I would hope that leadership would come out of the Northern Virginia delegation. Go down to Richmond and get these funding formulas changed."
The search for answers and solutions came as Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) sought to recover from the biggest defeat of his administration, and as Metro and Virginia Railway Express assessed the damage that the referendum's defeat will have on plans to extend rail to Dulles International Airport and to make other service improvements.
As proponents and opponents of the sales tax increase plotted new strategies, they acknowledged the political and practical obstacles ahead.
Attempts to grant local governments more power to manage growth, for example, have languished for years in the General Assembly, which has valued an individual's property rights over a community's desire to control what is built. Virginia's budget crisis -- a shortfall of about $1 billion -- leaves little prospect of finding more money for transportation. And small road improvements here and there have done little to solve the region's traffic problems.
"We will go to Richmond, and those who were opposed to our referendum will likely find themselves in a reality check come January," said Mike Lewis, chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "We are faced with a significant budget deficit. There is simply not going to be the kind of money to allocate to transportation when we are looking at massive cuts across the board."
Said Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors: "The road money will continue to flow, but it will continue to be a very small trickle."
Political observers said the campaign for the tax increase was a remarkable moment in Northern Virginia history -- one of the few times the region has voted as a single unit.
Scott Keeter, associate director of the Pew Research Center, said the strong anti-tax message from the region's voters may cement taxes as "the third rail of Virginia politics." And he said the "blame the developers" sentiment appears to be even broader than suggested by past elections in Loudoun and Prince William counties.
"The Washington area is populated by people who think about these kinds of connections," Keeter said. "They know the traffic issues, school overcrowding. They see how this stuff fits together more than perhaps people in some other areas have. The movement turns out to be more potent here than anyone suspected."
Voters across the region expressed suspicion that the tax would benefit mainly developers -- who helped finance the pro-tax campaign -- or that the money would be wasted by an inefficient state bureaucracy and wasn't enough to solve the traffic mess. Some worried that lawmakers in Richmond would find a way to divert the money to other parts of the state.
In voting no -- as 55 percent did -- many said they were trying to send messages to political leaders, whom they viewed as being out of step with the public.
"I don't think Plan A should always be raising taxes," said Cate Lione, 40, after casting her ballot in Centreville. "I feel that if the state government doesn't have the money for transportation projects and you can't get any more from the federal government, then stop the growth. Don't let developers develop the land."
Although she favors asking Richmond for more money, Lione said she voted against the sales tax increase because she somehow doubts that more money will solve the traffic problems.
"You just see the roads so crowded," she said. "Every time you turn around, they're knocking down all the woods and putting up more housing. . . . And you're sitting in traffic watching it be developed."
Samuel Metcalfe Jr., 75, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and real estate agent in Leesburg, said he was not particularly bothered by sprawl. "I'm part of it," he said, noting that he and his wife had moved to Vienna from Arlington in 1987 and, two years ago, relocated to Leesburg.
He said he voted against the tax increase because "they already have plenty of our money, and if they would only use it right, they would have plenty left over to do whatever they want with highways. They just waste so much of it."
John Marion, 41, an evangelical minister in Centreville, agreed with Metcalfe. He said his message for political leaders was this: "If you ask me if I want to give you, the politician, more of my money, the answer is no. The government already confiscates money from my paychecks that I don't have any control over."
Those who pushed for the tax increase spent much of yesterday trying to decode voter intent.
Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said he believes Tuesday's result was a vote of no-confidence in the ability or willingness of state lawmakers to finance transportation in Northern Virginia fairly.
"At some point, this stopped being a transportation referendum and started being a referendum on Richmond's performance," Connaughton said. "People recognize that we are the economic engine for the state and that the state has not invested in our future to the extent it should."
Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who spent years pushing for Tuesday's vote, believes the voters said two things.
"The first message was, 'I'm here now. Let's close the door and not let anyone else in,' " Rollison said. "The second message was, 'I'm here, I'm struggling to survive and I can't stand any more taxes.' Those two messages are very clearly heard."
Business leaders and members of the building industry disagreed that voters sent an anti-growth message.
"It was not necessarily a vote against sprawl or an anti-road issue as much as it was a concern for immediate taxing at a time when we are going through economic stress," said Diane Cox Basheer, president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.
Nancy Reed, a lobbyist for the Fairfax chamber, said her colleagues would fight attempts to translate Tuesday's vote into support for growth controls like those in Maryland and some other states.
"From the business community standpoint, [such] . . . ordinances are just as broken as any other strategies that haven't worked," she said. If you try to stop growth, she said, "ultimately you are going to deny people their piece of the American dream that they want."
Leaders of the anti-tax movement acknowledged that the burden is now on them to offer solutions to the region's traffic congestion.
"We can't walk away from this vote saying the status quo is acceptable," said James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., who was elected to the state Senate on Tuesday and campaigned against the ballot question in western Fairfax County. "We've been told to go and fix it."
O'Brien and other Republican lawmakers who fought the tax said they plan to propose redrawing the funding formula to send more road money to the Washington suburbs, relying more on population density than on estimates of how many cars use the roads. They also said they will push for an amendment to the Virginia constitution that would make it illegal for a governor or legislature to raid money from the state's transportation fund.
They also said they would link arms with slow-growth activists to resurrect legislation that has failed for years in Richmond: requiring developers to ensure that schools, roads, libraries and other public facilities are in place before a new subdivision goes up.
"A mandate was laid down by the people," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), a leader of the fight against the tax increase. "Things that have been proposed and died before are going to have a much better shot this year and next."
Staff writers William Branigin, David Cho, Rosalind S. Helderman and Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.