Gov. James S. Gilmore III faulted the performance of his transportation department and promised an audit today as he listened to radio show callers complain for an hour about the problems of commuting in Northern Virginia.

Taking calls from politicians, business leaders and commuters during his monthly show on WTOP radio in Washington, Gilmore repeatedly defended himself against the callers' complaints that nothing was happening to improve transportation.

The head of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce called to lament the transportation "crisis." A Democratic delegate urged Gilmore to think of new ways to finance highways. Then a state senator, another Democrat from Fairfax, complained that "you didn't put a nickel in transportation."

The Republican governor attacked demands by Democrats for dramatic increases in revenue for transportation and accused them of making transportation a partisan issue.

He said that suggestions that nothing was happening to improve commuting were false and that he would conduct the first performance audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation since the 1930s.

"We are still dealing with a VDOT organization . . . that has not significantly changed in decades and decades and decades," Gilmore said. He referred to the agency's performance as "antiquated madness" and a "bad system" but offered no details on what the audit was designed to detect.

Meanwhile, Gilmore reiterated his steadfast opposition to any new taxes to enhance the transportation network.

"The idea that nothing is happening, which is what the Democrats would like to try to mislead the people of Northern Virginia into thinking . . . is absolutely not true," Gilmore said. "I don't think we ought to make good policy based upon Democratic screamings for tax increases if we can find better ways to do it than that."

If Northern Virginians want to raise taxes for transportation, he said, they have it within their power to increase the income tax by 1 percent through local referendums. He said he did not advocate that. Instead, Gilmore said, he wants to focus on creative solutions to transportation problems.

Gilmore has a blue-ribbon commission studying congestion problems--the panel holds its second meeting here on Wednesday--but he and other Republicans, especially Northern Virginians, have been stung by a political perception that the GOP is dragging its feet.

Much of that public relations problem, Gilmore advisers say, stems from the four-year tenure of his Republican predecessor George Allen, whose budget-cutting zeal reduced the ranks of experienced planners at VDOT. Gilmore strategists wanted to use today's call-in show to start developing a more activist image for the governor on transportation.

It came not a moment too soon, some in the GOP said. Just today, Del. Robert G. Marshall, a conservative Republican from Manassas, implored Gilmore for help in a letter, saying, "We do need new thinking and managers at VDOT."

On Monday, state Sen. Jane H. Woods and Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., both Fairfax Republicans, held a news conference to say that all funding options, including higher taxes, ought to be considered in any long-term strategy for roads and mass transit.

Democrats, emboldened by what they think is a resonant issue heading into the fall campaigns for the General Assembly, intend to jab Gilmore at every turn.

"To date, the governor has failed to respond with a plan of his own and, instead, continues to blame everyone but himself for traffic problems," said Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

"It is members of his own party who have challenged his positions on tax increases," Bieber added. "The governor needs to stop his finger-pointing."

James W. Dyke Jr., the new president of the Fairfax chamber, who telephoned Gilmore during the show, fired off a letter to Gilmore today asking for a program "to streamline and create greater efficiencies" in VDOT.

Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said, "The entire transportation and planning process is flawed."