When an insurance company recently chose North Carolina over a Richmond suburb for its new offices, Chesterfield County officials blamed their community's rejection on inadequate state roads.

When school officials in rural Augusta County plot bus routes, officials fret over what they call the county's many dangerous one-lane dirt roads.

And in the Washington suburbs, where bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic is a twice-daily occurence, "more state road money" has become the prime political battle cry for legislators from both parties.

The debate over how Virginia spends its highway dollars is expected to get top priority when the General Assembly convenes in Richmond Jan. 9 for its 1985 session. The fight centers on proposals to revamp the state's highway funding formula to favor highly populated areas like the Washington suburbs.

The issue already has sparked an explosive schism, pitting the "asphalt jungles" of Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area against the rural regions of Virginia. Rural officials cry that the legislature is on the verge of playing reverse Robin Hood -- robbing the state's poorest jurisdictions to give to the rich suburbs.

"You are polarizing the counties and cities and towns of Virginia like they have never been polarized before," Barnie Day, administrator of rural Patrick County, recently told a legislative committee reviewing the proposed changes. "Polarize us on this and we in rural Virginia will coalesce on other issues."

The fight will be played out in the shadow of the 1985 state elections and campaigns for the 100-member House of Delegates. The delegates from the Washington suburbs anxiously want a highway victory to take back to their voters and all the gubernatorial candidates have pledged to help Northern Virginia commuters, recognizing the importance of roads to the large number of Washington suburban voters.

But because the issue could cost them rural votes, officials say that most state candidates would like some action by the General Assembly this winter.

The battle is expected to be a real test of the emerging urban-surburban coalition between Northern Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater. If legislators from those three areas, along with some cities can agree on a new formula they should have roughly 60 percent of the votes in each house and a slim majority in both House and Senate transportation committees, according to some supporters.

But many legislators say that holding such a coalition together will be as difficult as working a Rubik's cube. Making concessions to one group of legislators could cause others to defect.

That happened recently with one of the latest plans. It would have shuffled money around to win some Southwestern Virginia votes, but it also took $6 million from the Richmond highway district.

That upset two of Richmond's senior Democrats -- state Sens. Edward E. Willey and L. Douglas Wilder. " . . . Somebody better change those factors around if they want two votes on this," said Willey, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

There are three basic reasons why the urban-suburban highway coalition is expected to be so fragile in the upcoming session.

One problem lies in the complex way road money is apportioned in Virginia, a system that pits jurisdiction against jurisdiction and one pot of road money against another.

A second is that some of the traditional rivalries and alliances in the General Assembly run contrary to the way highway money is apportioned.

And a third is that some state leaders, hoping to avoid regional wars, want action delayed until gasoline taxes can be raised, something that few expect in an election year.

Virginia finances its highway system from a special highway fund, with money coming from the state gasoline tax, other state taxes and fees, toll collections and federal aid.

The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation does not distribute its road money equally, but according to several complex formulas established by the legislature.

The formulas tend to favor rural areas because population is not a major factor except in the case of money given to cities. For the other categories of highway funding, the size of the locality, the number of vehicle miles traveled, and the number of vehicles registered there become as important as population.

Cities, such as Alexandria and Norfolk, do their own road work and get most of their road money from the state's urban road fund based on their population.

There is a separate unpaved road fund for paving dirt roads that carry 50 or more cars a day, and it helps rural, but growing, areas like Loudoun County. Arlington and Henrico counties have their own separate pot of money.

The rest of the state's counties, including Fairfax and Prince William, let the state highway department maintain their roads. They get most of their road money from the state's primary and secondary roads funds.

The secondary road system includes all the public roads within a county, i.e. Fairfax's Braddock Road and the proposed Springfield Bypass. The primary system is intended to complement the interstate system and includes connector roads, like Arlington Boulevard (U.S. Rte. 50).

There are a half dozen proposals floating around Richmond, each of which raises or lowers different categories or changes the various formulas for each road fund to try to gather enough votes. In one proposal, Fairfax County gains in all categories. In another, proposed by Del. L. Cleaves Manning (D-Portsmouth), Fairfax would gain $5.8 million in secondary funds but would lose $3 million in primary funds.

Under Manning's proposal, a compromise to be considered Jan 9 by the joint legislative committee that is to make recommendations to the General Assembly, Arlington County would gain $2.2 million and Alexandria would get $342,340 more.

"The area that really gets clobbered if this thing passes is the southwestern part of Virginia," said Democratic state Sen. Peter K. Babalas. Babalas represents Norfolk, which would gain from the changes, but he has so far refused to endorse changing the highway formula.

Babalas, who is often at odds with the Senate leadership, has worked with western state Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick (D-Botetourt) to build a coalition between western Virginia and Tidewater. Some Northern Virginians are concerned that Babalas and others who should like the changes because it would bring more road money to their areas, will oppose it for other reasons.

Another formidable roadblock for Northern Virginia is House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry), whose sparsely populated Southside county is a loser under every proposal.

Then there is state Sen. Charlie L. Waddell, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Waddell has the misfortune of representing both Loudoun, which is hurt by the proposals, and Fairfax, which is helped. "I'm in a real dilemma," said Waddell. "But I feel to defer is to procrastinate. I'm prepared to bite the bullet."

Some politicians feel that the only way to prevent a divisive regional battle is to increase the amount of money for all highway projects. While some say a gasoline tax increase could be pushed through in 1986, most agree it has little chance in 1985, an election year. Legislators also predict that Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb would oppose a tax increase next year during the last year of his term.

"Until the pie itself is increased," the road formulas should not be changed, said Del. Raymond R. Guest (R-Warren), whose district would lose money. That is a position echoed by many rural officials.

Administrator Day, of rural Patrick County, predicted that the scars of a highway funding battle could last for many years, and he repeatedly pointed out that there will be other issues -- like the growing shortage of drinking water -- where urban areas will need the cooperation of rural areas.

"We'll take our beating here and go home and lick our wounds and wait. Our time will come. There'll be other fields of battle," said Day.

Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), one of the Northern Virginia legislators leading the road fight, said that for years Fairfax County has been deprived of its fair share, and that delaying action would be unfair. "Not to act is to act," said Watts.

"Whatever we do, I can guarantee we aren't going to please everybody," said Willey. "I think some compromise could fly this year . . . . It's a question of compromise. That's what politics is all about."