NORTHERN VIRGINIA legislators from both parties have been working in tandem -- and in vain, for the most part -- to jolt Gov. Gilmore into high gear on the issue of transportation improvements. Not once so far has the governor commented on their proposals without tossing in a few petty political potshots at Democrats that by implication insult every Republican lawmaker from this region as well. At least his latest volley included a few hints of a transportation package that he is set to announce Tuesday. The governor did say that he supports using a portion of Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement.

How much? Health officials believe that a substantial portion ought to be spent on preventing and repairing damages of tobacco use. In Maryland, Gov. Glendening has proposed a detailed program considered by leading health experts to be a model. It calls for spending the bulk of Maryland's settlement money on cancer research, anti-smoking campaigns, education programs and assistance to end tobacco farming. Virginia should take heed before earmarking large amounts for roads.

The governor has rejected a better source for transportation: the state's $167-million-and-growing surplus. He maintains that except for $8.2 million in discretionary spending, the surplus must go to a rainy-day fund, cleanup of waterways and other purposes required by state law. Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have urged use of the surplus say the governor has understated the state's flexibility in spending this money.

If the governor wants to best the legislators' proposals, his package ought to call for far greater spending on transit as well as road projects that could diminish congestion instead of merely maintaining the same level for the next 20 years. Gov. Gilmore should cut out the political jabbing at Democratic and Republican lawmakers seeking transportation relief and work with them on a serious financial commitment -- including use of surplus funds, bonds and local tax increases for transportation improvements throughout Virginia.