FOR A WHILE it looked as if the Washington area might finally make some inroads on its horrendous transportation mess. There was new talk about old projects -- such as the intercounty connector -- and additional political support for action. But the momentum is dissipating. In Virginia, much political capital was spent last year pressing for a local sales tax increase to fund road and rail projects that was rejected by voters. This year, with their own election coming up, state lawmakers had no appetite for significant measures. In Maryland, voters said yes last fall to candidates who promised to support roads and transit -- including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who pledged to increase state spending dramatically. His victory lap included a productive run to federal transportation officials, who have just placed the intercounty connector on a fast track federal review. Good work -- until you look at what Gov. Ehrlich proposes to do to funding for road projects in Maryland.

Where do cash-strapped state governments turn to for money to help balance their budgets? They go to transportation funds set aside for projects that have been waiting for decades. Gov. Ehrlich's budget proposal would scoop out $500 million from the state transportation fund, which he says he can do without inflicting serious harm on Maryland's road and transit systems -- this year. The big hitch: He has no plan for repaying the cash. That, he says, is a problem for a task force to figure out. How responsible is that? The state's transportation department says no road building now underway will stop, yet a report by Post staff writers Michael D. Shear and Lori Montgomery noted that 63 road maintenance projects in the pipeline had been put on hold. A Maryland Highway Contractors Association official says Gov. Ehrlich's plan could cost the state as many as 11,000 highway construction jobs over the next 18 months -- and never mind what it could mean for realization of the intercounty connector.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner and the Republican legislature also diverted transportation money to help balance the state budget, with no definite idea of how the cash will be put back. There, as in Maryland, transportation funds are not legally protected from raids to balance budgets. Maybe when the good times roll again, the funds will be made whole. If so, whoever the leaders are had best get their projects in line quickly.