Two weeks ago, almost every legislator in town was ready to bet his district -- or at least a few drinks -- that the most brutal battle of 1981 would be waged on the issue of transportation.

Consider the evidence: On the session's opening day, rural legislators were boiling about the condition of their roads and bridges. Baltimore and Washington-area legislators feared for the long-term future of mass transit funds. Both groups looked hungrily at shrinking transportation revenues, and almost nobody trusted the messages being sent out by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Finally, Gov. Harry Hughes' budget didn't hold any answers in this year of fiscal squeezes.

Noises of a legislative revolt rose from the ranks. Democrats and Republicans, country and city dwellers, advocates of mass transit and of highways were all calling for a committee to investigate the DOT, and possibly even to take partial control of it through legislation setting its priorities and money sources for years to come.

As the session opened, House of Delegates Speaker Ben Cardin (D-Baltimore) and Senate President Jim Clark (D-Howard and Montgomery counties) said the committee would be appointed any day. An inquisition, complete with factional and sectional fireworks, seemed unavoidable.

But all of a sudden, the revolt seems to have been put down -- not because the problems have been solved, but because the House and Senate leadership have quietly and swiftly taken the issue away from the raging rank and file. Now there will be no investigative committee, Cardin and Clark say. Instead, as the leadership, they will caucus informally with the chairmen of the fiscal committees and decide on a "reasonable conclusion for 1981," as Cardin put it. c

It now seems likely that the leaders will choose as the "reasonable conclusion" a bill proposing a surcharge on trucks that ply Maryland's highways. The surcharge, based on the weight of the trucks and the miles they travel, could raise as much as $70 million this year, says Del. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's transportation subcommittee.

The bill is heatedly opposed by rural legislators who see it as a way to bolster sagging transportation revenues at the expense of highway users. They want to see heavier taxes on the users of mass transit in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. Knowing that sentiment, Bainum and his subcommittee are proposing that all the revenues raised through the surcharge be used for repairs of dilipidated roads and bridges.

Bainum and the leadership contend that these revenues will solve the transportation problem at least through 1983 -- in short, until election year is behind the legislators and they can look safely at a tax increase. But considerable numbers of rural and urban legislators contest this view.

The leadership got the upper hand in the issue last week during a meeting of delegates and senators on the Joint Policy Committee. A proposal for a 15-member investigative committee surfaced, and Senate President Clark warned: "If it (the investigation) gets too broad and you try to do too many things, you're not going to end up doing anything." He moved that the committee scotch the proposal in favor of an informal gathering of legislative leaders, who would then make proposals for legislative action. In a brief discussion, the policy committee's members seemed to be leaning toward Clark's solution.

"I can see what's happening. Let her rip," Sen. Edward Mason (R-Allegany) muttered under his breath as Cardin called for a vote on the suggestion. It passed handily.

Mason, the Senate minority leader and one of the most forceful advocates of shifting the state's transportation priorities, said afterwards that he sniffed subversion in the sudden turnabout. A few days before, Clark and Cardin had met with Hughes, who was known to feel coolly toward the proposed investigative committee. Mason and his compatriots in the Republican and rural ranks believe that the leadership foresaw too many fireworks in the proposed investigative committee. And that might divert attention from the Bainum bill, which has strong backing from Clark, Cardin and other members of the leadership.

Cardin says those concerns were definitely there. But he also said the transportation issue had gotten too unruly for a committee to resolve within the length of this legislative session. "Whatever committee we create must have a useful purpose. And with all the expectations that so many different groups had, I just don't think it could be accomplished," he said.

For the moment, the seemingly unavoidable has been avoided. The transportation issue will be resolved -- at least for the 1981 session -- in the cool quarters of the legislative leadership offices rather than in an open committee room with rural and urban legislators alike crying for flesh and revenues.

But the issue remains thorny. Even DOT officials say the transportation finance system in Maryland is doomed for bankruptcy in the next few years if something is not done to increase revenues. And several powerful legislators will be making that point as the session goes on. It may not be as fiery as some legislators expected, but the transportation issue will not go away quietly.