FOR ALL THE WRONG reasons, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton may be headed for an early and unfortunate legislative defeat in the General Assembly this year. His proposal for an increase in the gasoline tax to finance transportation projects around the state appears doomed -- not because it isn't needed or wise, but because lawmakers in both parties are either jockeying for some other position or chickening out on the whole idea of any tax increases. Though the governor might have avoided some of this fallout with a little smoother advance work among the legislators, his proposal deserves rational consideration and approval.

A number of Republicans say they are miffed because Gov. Dalton didn't consult them and seemed to be taking their support for granted. Still others in the governor's party either wouldn't support any tax increase for anything, or aren't up to explaining to their constituents why the Dalton proposal would make possible important transportation improvements throughout Virginia. As a result (and even though Mr. Dalton campaigned hard for many of them), these lawmakers are deserting the governor.

Opposition from the Democrats comes in all sorts of forms, from the self-destructive politicking within the Northern Virginia delegation -- which should be getting some act together on behalf of Metro -- to the partisan reluctance of others to support a "Dalton proposal." Like their Republican colleagues, many Democrats also felt that Gov. Dalton should have provided sooner more specific details about how tax revenues would be distributed.

These concerns have all fed the provincial -- and inaccurate -- argument in Richmond that the gasoline tax increase is only for Northern Virginia's benefit. There is no question that it would provide revenue for construction of a subway system that is very much a part of Virginia's approved transportation program, which requires local government payments as well. But the tax increase also would make possible highway improvements that localities all around the state have been seeking.

Whether the increase comes in the form of a 4-percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, as proposed by Gov. Dalton, or in the form of a three-or four-cents-a-gallon increase, as some Democratic powers in Richmond are said to be considering, is not all that critical. But gasoline is the right source for a responsible financial program to meet statewide demands.