GOV. JOHN DALTON'S new-found interest in a possible gasoline tax increase for Virginia's highways opens up some important financial possibilities for mass transit as well -- and specifically for Metro. The scene will be in Richmond, and here's how some Northern Virginia legislators would like it to play: in return for their support of the governor's proposals for roads, he would help them by endorsing the increased taxing powers needed to finance Metro operations. That's a reasonable deal that would benefit all parts of the state.

Pulling it off would take some doing, though. Mr. Dalton isn't in the habit of doing Northern Virginia any favors. Ever since his successful courting of votes in this region last time around, he's treated Northern Virginians more as foreign allies than as the substantial state taxpayers they are. As people in this area know all too well, he wouldn't even support allowing the local jurisdictions to tax themselves for transit needs. But just as the governor now seems to recognize the sad shape of the highway program, maybe he will develop a fresh appreciation of other transportation needs throughout the state.

Among those proposing to work for this change are state Senate Majority Leader Adelard Brault and Sen. Clive DuVal, who are members of the Senate Finance Committee, and Del. Warren Stambaugh, a senior member of the House Finance Committee. The three say they will oppose any increase in the gasoline tax unless it is linked to more transit aid. They believe they have the votes on their committees to block any increase in gasoline taxes -- here's the offer -- unless the proposal contains provisions for a "substantial state payment to finance the Metro operating deficit and to assist mass transit generally." The legislators also seek assurance of a permanent state commitment to assist Metro.

This is not simply a local port-barrel request; it is one of the most important issues facing the state legislature in the coming session. Metro is a crucial part of Virginia's transportation network as well as part of a national system that Congress and every president since Eisenhower have endorsed. Now it is up to the state government in Richmond to do its part in keeping this extraordinary interstate/federal project going.