THE CALL FOR more and better transit in this region has long been loud if not clear. Bus service leaves much to be desired and too many people in the lurch, as reported last week by staff writer Lyndsey Layton. Support for additional rail service is strong -- stronger these days than support for the revenue to pay for it. The refusal of Northern Virginians to raise their sales tax for transportation has sent Metro and Virginia Railway Express officials scrambling for another way to finance many planned improvements; some projects, including the proposed extension of Metrorail service from West Falls Church to Tysons Corner and Dulles International Airport, may be curtailed or put off indefinitely.

Supporters of rail to Dulles note that this project was never predicated on the referendum proposal. Under a financing plan approved before the referendum effort, Virginia would seek 51 percent of the cost from the federal government; the rest would be shared by the state and local governments and the regional airports authority. Yet without the revenue that the sales tax increase would have generated, strapped local governments are neither ready nor willing to squeeze out their shares at the expense of schools or public safety. Given the scope of the Dulles project, cheaper options may have to do: A rail-to-Tysons, bus-to-Dulles system is one answer, though it is not clear how many riders that would attract.

Virginia Railway Express was counting on $100 million to purchase 50 rail cars. Metro was banking on millions of dollars from Northern Virginia and several billion from the two states and the District over the next 10 years for maintenance of trains, buses and stations. Repairs and purchases of equipment must proceed, but the already-slow pace will get worse.

Will Northern Virginia wring more money out of Richmond through a new formula or a dedicated bite of the existing sales tax? Will Metro have a good ear in the new administration in Annapolis? Without stronger political leadership in the quest for reliable sources of revenue, the prospects for any immediate progress are bleak.