A key Virginia legislative committee recommended sweeping changes today in the way the state distributes highway money, shifting millions of dollars from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, including Northern Virginia.

Some senior legislators said the recommendation, a compromise offered by an influential legislator from Tidewater, stands a good chance of winning approval in the 46-day legislative session that opened today. Lawmakers from rural areas were planning to fight the proposal in what some said could be one of the most divisive battles of the session.

"This is just the beginning," said Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "I think the measure is in for some tough sledding."

Most suburban Washington legislators, who have said that getting more highway money for Northern Virginia is their top priority, were cautiously optimistic. "The fight is just starting," said state Sen. Clive L. DuVal (D-Fairfax). "The suburban and city boys and some of the rural boys got over the first hurdle today."

State Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, predicted the measure will clear both the House and Senate. "I think the votes are there," he said today.

Del. Donald A. McGlothlin (D-Buchanan), an opponent and chairman of the House Roads Committee, said that supporters of the proposed changes "have got the votes, if they can hold it together."

Legislators said it is too soon to predict the bill's overall impact on Northern Virginia. Under the proposal, Fairfax County would get an additional $5.8 million for so-called secondary roads, those highways largely within the county, such as Braddock Road.

The Northern Virginia highway district, which includes Alexandria and Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun counties, would lose $3 million in so-called primary funds, which are used to build roads that connect jurisdictions, such as Arlington Boulevard (Rte. 50).

Arlington would get an additional $2.2 million for its roads. Alexandria would get $342,330 more.

Loudoun would lose $286,782 in secondary road money, but would gain $271,838 in unpaved road funds, to pave dirt roads. Prince William would get an additional $588,255 in secondary road funds.

The approval of the joint House-Senate committee, which voted 9 to 5 to recommend the changes, was considered a crucial hurdle because the committee is composed of members from the House and Senate committees that control road money.

Legislators had predicted there would not be any changes in the highway formulas without the committee's endorsement. Even with today's vote, the proposed changes are expected to encounter strong opposition from most rural legislators.

The proposal recommended today was offered by Del. L. Cleaves Manning (D-Portsmouth). It does not give as much additional money to Northern Virginia as earlier proposals, but suburban Washington legislators say the compromise was the best they could get out of the joint committee. Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) said she and others may seek revisions as the bill moves through the legislature.

The committee has been working for several months, and as late as this week, some members were predicting that the committee would fail to reach an agreement.

Northern Virginia legislators hope to build an urban-suburban coalition to battle the rural areas, most of whom will lose under the proposed changes. Holding the coalition together may prove difficult because of the complex way that highway money is distributed. When a change is made to gain support from one area, it normally takes funds from another region, jeopardizing the support of its legislators.

The road money fight has become one of the most politically sensitive issues in the state, because local officials throughout Virginia complain that roads are in poor condition.

In rapidly growing areas, officials say that road improvements are crucial to luring new businesses and to appeasing commuters faced with daily traffic jams. Rural legislators counter that many of the roads in their areas are narrow dirt roads that are unsafe and that hinder any economic growth in the poorest regions of the state.

In Virginia, the state is responsible for construction and maintenance of most roads in all counties, except Arlington and Henrico counties. Those two counties, as well as cities, get money from the state, but operate their own road systems.