Roads and prisons promise to be the dominant issues confronting Virginia's 140 legislators when the 1985 General Assembly convenes Wednesday for what is expected to be a 46-day session.

For Northern Virginia's delegates and state senators especially, changes in the current formula for distributing highway construction monies will be a priority. Virginia's current highway formula discriminates against rapidly growing areas, such as Fairfax and Prince William counties, where the pace of development has outrun Virginia's ability to construct the necessary highway network.

Resistance to changes in the road-financing formula is sure to come from areas of the state, predominantly rural, that have been favored by the current distribution scheme. Legislators representing those areas will argue, with some justification, that a mere change in the method of distributing road construction money will not really solve the problems of Fairfax, Virginia Beach, Chesterfield County and other fast-growing localities, and will leave smaller localities unable to meet their own highway demands.

All of this may mean that any change in the method of distributing highway money will have to be part and parcel of an increase in the amount of money available for distribution. That could mean a proposal to increase gasoline taxes -- a risky proposition with doubtful chances of passage in a year when all 100 members of the house of delegates will be up for reelection.

Politics, unfortunately, also may play a role in the general assembly's response to problems in Virginia's correctional system. The highly publicized escape of six death-row inmates from the Mecklenburg Correctional Facility last May -- and several other incidents, including escapes at other state prisons since then -- has created a sense of urgency to "do something" about the state prison system.

This may result in temptations to accompany action with more than the usual partisan rhetoric. Prison problems and the solutions to those problems do not, however, break down along partisan lines. Virginia's prison system, like prison systems all over the country, has a history of difficulties spanning Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

With a few notable exceptions -- easily traceable to political ambition -- legislators and others in both parties have resisted partisan brickbats and have been searching conscientiously for ways to improve security at prisons, upgrade the quality of personnel in the correctional system, determine the best mix of prisoners at particular facilities and strengthen management practices in the entire system.

These are not easy issues. For example, the report of the state board of corrections on the death-row escape from Mecklenburg found that the primary reason for the escape was a failure to follow established security procedures. As the report said, "Simple adherence to established and well- publicized security procedures would have prevented the escape."

It is difficult to imagine legislation that could force security personnel to follow the rules. What seems to be needed is an improvement in training, supervision and quality of security staff. This involves time, money and management commitment -- not all of which are subject to legislative control.

Nevertheless, all of Virginia's legislators are determined to find answers. Doing so in a constructive nonpartisan way will be the real challange.

Beyond roads and prisons, there are more than enough other issues. As an example, permanent resolution of two critical and vexing environmental questions that have been on the Virginia legislative program for some time should finaly come: 1) Should Virginia permit construction of a coal slurry pipeline? And 2) Should Virginia permit uranium mining? The responses to both questions are uncertain.

Equally uncertain are the outcomes for other important issues to be considered in this "short" session, including the prospect for elected school boards; for raising the drinking age for beer and wine to 21 (already the legal age for drinking other alcoholic beverages); for enacting a bill of rights for handicapped citizens; for budget revisions made possible by more than $123 million in available revenue; and for changes in the rules governing medical malpractice.

All of these issues -- and many more -- will be considered against a backdrop of campaigns for Virginia's three statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, each featuring members of the general assembly as prominent candidates. It promises to be interesting.