During its first 16 years, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission has existed in relative obscurity. First of all, it has been cursed with a set of initials that not even the most imaginative bureaucrat can convert into a catchy acronym.

But beyond that, the commission -- sort of a Northern Virginia adjunct of Metro -- just hasn't done much to command attention.

But the commission is suddenly big news to Northern Virginians -- even without a pronounceable acronym. The occasion is its new role as the conduit for regional gasoline sales tax revenues for Metro debts. Recently passed state lesislation established a 2 percent tax starting July 1, with another 2 percent added July 1, 1981, but there's considerable disagreement about how the revenue should be divided among local governments.

For example: Fairfax County, one of the five localities in the commission, accounts for about 47 percent of the Metro deficit in Northern Virginia. But Fairfax gasoline stations account for about 66 percent of the region's fuel sales, according to county estimates. Should Fairfax get 47 percent or 66 percent of the gas tax revenues?

A lot of money is at stake. Revenues for fiscal 1982 are expected to total about $11 million. Revenues for the following year, when the tax will be the full 4 percent, could be more than $26 million. With a $26 million pot, the difference between 47 percent and 66 percent is about $5 million.

Naturally Fairfax representatives to the commission would like to see all the revenue raised in Fairfax stay in the county. But the two main authors of the legislation -- Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) and Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) -- say the act provides for the revenue to be "taken off the top" of the Metro deficit -- which means Fairfax would get back less than it contributes.

Although Brault agreed to the act as it stands, he did so grudgingly.

"It's unfair," he says of the formula, "but we have to live with it. It's the law."

Brault said he agreed to the formula because that was the only way to get a Metro financing bill out of the General Assembly, and that next year he will work to change the language so Farifax gets all the tax money it raises.

But how unfair is the formula? Stambaugh, the prime mover behind the tax, says: "We have a regional tax for a regional transportation system. We have a partnership. We don't have a bunch of independent oligarchies."

And to the Fairfax claim that it would generate a higher percentage of tax revenues than it would be credited with, Stambough replies: "They're going to have to prove to me that every single drop of gasoline in Fairfax is sold to Fairfax residents. I buy gasoline in Fairfax, people from Maryland buy gas there."

As to fairness, Stambaugh says Arlington, if it wanted, could scream about injustices as loudly as Fairfax board Chairman John F. Herrity has done. For example, Stambaugh said, Arlington, because it is more compact, contributes a higher percentage of farebox revenues to Metrobus costs than Fairfax, where the population is spread over 400 square miles. Since it costs any Metrobus more than $3 to go one mile, long trips are very uneconomical.

Irving G. McNayr, executive director of the NVTC, wants some of the early revenues from the gasoline tax to be used to settle some old Fairfax City debts that the city -- which renounced Metro -- refuses to pay, and for debt service on some old revenue bonds. After that, McNayr has proposed that revenues be divided among Northern Virginia localities according to their subsidy share. That is pretty much the same as Stambaugh and Brault interpret the current formula.

McNayr's proposal to pay off Fairfax City's old debts hasn't exicited much enthusiasm, but that is peripheral to the main issue -- how the money pie will be divided.

An analysis of the 17 votes on the commission indicates Fairfax could lose in a showdown. Under the most generous scenario, Fairfax couldn't hope to get more than seven votes to Arlington's 10. Even after July 1, when Firfax will have a fifth seat on the commission, it would still lose 8 to 10. Ordinarily, Fairfax might be able to count on Brault, but the Fairfax senator has publicly agreed with the Stambaugh interpretation of the gasoline law.

Even though Arlington would have the upper hand in any confrontation, commission member John Perrin, of Fairfax City, says he hopes there will be a compromise.

"In making a statement for regionalism," he said, "it could actually damage the concept. Arlington could win, but the victory could come back to haunt it."