TO THE DELIGHT and, in some corners, surprise of urban-suburban legislators in Richmond, an important road-money measure has sailed through a critical test in the House of Delegates. By an impressive 19- to-1 vote, the House Roads Committee approved the proposal, which would divert millions of dollars in state highway funds to Northern Virginia and other populous areas of the state. While many lawmakers are pointing to this vote as symbolizing a dramatic loss of power by rural legislators, the outcome probably had just as much to do with two other factors: 1) it has been lobbied effectively, and 2) it is a fair compromise that provides some money as well as greater flexibility for secondary road construction in the rural areas.

Northern Virginia's keen interest in the bill is obvious to commuters who suffer massive traffic jams twice a day. They desperately need relief. But traditionally, the troubles of Northern Virginians have not caused all that many tears in the state legislature. Couple this with the unhappy fact that delegations from Northern Virginia never seemed to keep their acts together long enough to be effective, and you had a money formula with a rural tilt. This year, fortunately, delegates and state senators from this region were determined to change the pattern.

They have cultivated alliances that help. The bill is sponsored by Del. L. Cleaves Manning of Portsmouth, another populous area. Mr. Manning has emphasized that his proposal is not meant to favor urban/suburban areas unfairly; in fact, he argues, the new formulas do not go as far as true allocation equity might require.

Del. George W. Grayson of James City County suggests that legislators may sense it is time to "recognize reality": these deliberations go beyond the old rural-suburban battles. "It's just very difficult to go back and say we're helping the no-growth and slow-growth areas and not take into account suburbanizing areas," he observes. If this truth can prevail through the house vote and then through the state senate -- where the going is likely to be tougher -- the members of the general assembly will have done an important service to the whole of Virginia, which they collectively represent.