GOV. GERALD BALILES had more than a little hunch when he took office in January that the No. 1 issue in Virginia was transportation -- and so far his immediate, surprisingly strong and different approach has been dramatically on target. Only two days after taking oath, the governor went before the General Assembly and called for significant changes in the way the state finances transportation and in the way the legislature should consider them. As a result, a special session of the assembly has been set for the fall, and a new way of thinking is beginning to take hold on the political road to that meeting in Richmond. Mr. Baliles already has a special commission taking soundings around the state to prepare recommendations for the special session -- and the intensity of public response is sending one message right off the bat: Virginians want help and are willing to pay for it.

How much they are willing to put up remains to be determined, but they are listening to ideas that used to be rejected summarily in the halls of the state house. The most notable example is the governor's proposal to end "pay-as-you-go" financing of transportation projects. In traffic-choked Northern Virginia, it has been pay-as-you-don't-go; and other parts of the state are desperate for better connections, which will require huge amounts of money. On Wednesday in Prince William County, 300 people turned up for the study commission's hearing, and they seemed to agree on the inevitability of higher taxes, toll road and road bonds. As Del. Gladys Keating of Fairfax said, "We had people tell us: 'Solve the road problem -- even if it costs money. We want to be able to move!' bidder of the day was state Sen. Clive DuVal II of Fairfax, who suggested raising the gasoline tax by 15 cents a gallon and issuing $1.5 billion in bonds for projects -- and promptly acknowledged that this was more than he would ever expect the legislature to endorse in a single move. But he does believe the assembly could approve as much as a 5-cent-a-gallon increase if the commission would recommend it.

It is going to take a combination of higher gasoline taxes, bonds, toll roads and other financing measures to do the job, and that realization seems to be crystalizing. The next challenge for Gov. Baliles and the legislative leaders with whom he has been working is to make sure the road show doesn't degenerate into a sideshow this fall -- to avoid the old bitter, inconclusive battles between urban and rural areas over exactly what to do where. At the very least, the isolation of transportation for a special session has succeeded in concentrating political attention and expertise.