JUST WHEN IT looked as if Virginia's most notorious road-building retrogrades had given way to progressive transportation thinkers, along come the state's highway officials with bad news for Northern Virginians and others who live in urban areas. With no regard for the best advice offered by a knowledgeable joint legislative staff, the highway officials have rejected a plan to shift millions of dollars in the state's $1 billion-a-year highway allocation program from rural areas to the more crowded and still growing parts of the state. The result is an invitation for a return to the bad old days of rural-urban transit battles that wind up leaving responsible programs for roads in ruins.

If the highway department's position were to go unchallenged, some secondary roads in Northern Virginia and in other areas in similar straits, which now carry more vehicles than many of the primary highways, would continue to be short on money and long on traffic jams. As Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) reported after a meeting of a joint legislative committee, the highway department seems "more worried about a 50-mile trip that takes an hour, rather than a 15-mile trip that also takes an hour."

As if this highway department policy weren't wrongheaded enough, the same officials have suggested that growing costs for the Metro system in Northern Virginia and other mass transit plans be financed through local-option taxes rather than by simply increasing state financing. They also rejected a proposal to establish a separate mass transit fund, suggesting this money might be used to pay union-negotiatedwages -- this in a state that is strongly opposed to collective bargaining for state employees. So much for consistent policy: local option on the one hand, no local option on the other.

Some local tax might be fine, along with state help. But is the legislature likely to permit local option? Fat chance. So come January, it will be up to the delegation from Northern Virginia to link up with urban/suburban representatives from around the state to press hard for a balanced and fair transportation system. Road money is a must, and so is transit financing. If Gov. Robb intends to continue in the driver's seat for the legislative session, he should start by making this point loud and clear.