The transportation funding debate this week put a spotlight once again on J. Kenneth Klinge, of Alexandria, the fellow who has one of the most difficult balancing acts in Virginia public life: keeping his boss and pal--Gov. James S. Gilmore III--happy while making sure his hometown folks make some headway toward easing gridlock.

Impossible? Maybe, but not for lack of trying. Klinge, a portly, bespectacled guy whose quiet demeanor hides a razor-sharp mind and a distaste for taxes, is getting high marks from Democrats and Republicans alike for his stewardship of a blue-ribbon commission that a year from now may recommend major changes at the Virginia Department of Transportation, an agency that many suburbanites view as hidebound and lethargic at best.

Since May, when Gilmore appointed the 21-member commission, Klinge has patiently schooled his colleagues on the inner workings of VDOT--"how the joint operates," he said in an interview--before they issued an interim report this week that raises the possibility of regional taxes and tolls for the crowded locales that may need them most.

Klinge said he viewed the report as a "device to keep things on the table," meaning local referendums that eventually could clear the way for user fees dedicated to highway improvements. Gilmore promptly registered his disapproval, though he said the Klinge commission should consider any option for new funding.

Klinge was careful first to put a marker down in favor of short- and long-term solutions that could free up new money without tax increases--shifting payrolls and programs around the state budget to accelerate projects with no dramatic cost increases and perhaps even some savings.

But he acknowledged that the ticking clock is his worst enemy, "in the sense of the patience of the people" in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and other urban centers. In a sense, Klinge is the bridge between corporate types around the Capital Beltway who already are feeling stifled by the region's gridlock, and Gilmore, who keeps transportation well down on his list of administration priorities.

Klinge keeps one eye on Richmond--"The General Assembly may or may not approve," he said ruefully about his own report--and another eye on Northern Virginia and the region's dialogues with sister jurisdictions along the Potomac River.

In considering any legislation permitting Virginia counties to link up in regional taxing districts, "a debate in the General Assembly about whether a region would include Maryland and the District would be a very different debate" than one about a Virginia-only proposal, Klinge said.

Gridlock on Their Minds

While Klinge & Co. toiled on Monday, several regional chambers of commerce called a Capitol news conference to make their own pitches for new transportation dollars, saying the full menu of tolls, taxes and other user fees needs to be on the public table for debate.

Through it all, Northern Virginia was the yardstick for measuring commuter pain.

Nelson H. Adcock, a business executive who works with state government on behalf of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, said his region--home to the world's largest naval base and the second-largest port on the East Coast--is crying out for relief "in order to prevent the gridlock similar to Northern Virginia's."

Things are so bad in Adcock's neck of the woods that seven Tidewater jurisdictions that quarrelled for years are finally getting together to talk money issues for big-ticket items such as a third water crossing connecting the peninsula with south Hampton Roads and beyond that the resort areas of Virginia Beach.

The cost? A cool $3 billion.

Plum in the Hot Seat

Some Virginia Democrats are grumbling about their party's leadership after the elections last month that sent the legislature firmly into Republican hands.

Kenneth R. Plum, the affable delegate from Reston and state party chairman who survived a nasty reelection fight of his own, is in the cross hairs of some rank-and-file members embittered by the November results.

Some regulars have approached several party stalwarts about succeeding Plum, whose term officially ends in May 2001.

Richmond Mayor Timothy M. Kaine and two politicians from Virginia Beach--defeated Del. Glenn R. Croshaw and activist-lawyer Kenneth V. Geroe--are among the folks the disaffected Democrats are talking to.

"I'm not out there," Kaine told The Post, although he said he "had some inquiries" about the party post last month.

"Clearly, Democrats are doing some soul-searching, and that's a good thing," Kaine said.

Craig K. Bieber, a Plum ally and the party's executive director in Virginia, was philosophical about the mutterings. "There's always going to be some level of dissension in any political organization," Bieber said. But he added: "This is not what the Democratic Party needs right now. We're moving ahead."

Gilmore vs. Gilmore

Gilmore, the governor, told his WTOP radio audience this week that he opposed the tough restrictions on concealed weapons that Fairfax County leaders want to impose at local recreation centers.

But Gilmore, the candidate, said in 1997 that he favored a measure aimed at doing just that.

The Fairfax restrictions, he said this week, were "not in the American tradition" of gun ownership rights. In March 1997, the candidate issued a release saying the General Assembly bill "would be a positive signal to Virginia's parents that we are determined to keep their children safe in recreation centers everywhere.

"My record . . . is proof of my commitment to keeping Virginia's families safe," Gilmore said then. "I will not tolerate weapons in schools or recreation centers."