Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton yesterday appointed a staunch advocate of highway construction as his highway and transportation commissioner, an official with great influence over the allocation of funds between roads and mass transit.

Dalton announced the appointment of Harold C. King, a U.S. highway administration program director, at a press conference in the state Capitol. King will succeed John Harwood who is retiring this year as the head of one of the most powerful departments in the state government.

Northern Virginia officials had been looking to the appointment of Harwood's successor as an important barometer of Dalton's interest in mass transportation.

But at the press conference, King acknowledged that his transportation background is "mostly highway." He displayed a passive attitude toward the completion of the 100-mile Metro rail system in Northern Virginia.

"I wouldn't say I support the 100 miles; I'll say that whatever they feel they can finance, I support as providing the proper access to get those people into some of the parking lots that have already been planned in that area," King said.

In his federal job, King has been administrator of the Virginia division since 1970, "working closely," as the Dalton press release on his appointment put it, "with our Department of Highway and Transportation to expedite the federal aid program."

One knowledgeable federal source drew the connection between King and the state highway department even more closely. "King always saw his job as accomplishing what (former state highway commissioner Douglas B.) Fugate and Harwood wanted," the source said. "He takes oreders from the federal government. But if they they don't give the order to him, he goes their way."

"We long have considered (King) almost as one of the official family in state government, the press statement said. "And I am delighted that on July 1 he will become a full-fledged member of that family."

Before becoming Virginia division administrator, king organized and directed the U.S. agency's first environmental development office. According to one source, King took "big environmental risks" in highway development. "One time, he got away with doing 10 miles of 1-64 (the major east-west highway in Virginia) without an environmental impact statement. He's smart. He is capable," the source said. "He knows the business."

In Virginia, the business always has been highways, ever since the days of the late governor and Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., for whom roadbuilding was a policy for expanding the state economy.

Fugate and Harwood, King's predecessors, enthusically supported that policy with a singlemindedness that led many Northern Virginians to believe they were indifferent to the public transportation needs of their commuter-clogged region.