VIRGINIA'S NEW GOVERNOR wasted no time yesterday putting his mark on a surprisingly strong and different approach to the state's huge, urgent and expensive transportation issues. In his State of the Commonwealth address to the General Assembly, Gov. Baliles not only proposed significant changes in the way Virginia finances transportation -- an end to "pay as you go" -- but also set a prompt deadline for initial action. He announced that he will call the legislature into special session in September to act on recommendations to be submitted before then by a commission of experts. The governor's heavy emphasis on transportation -- he devoted about a third of his speech to it -- is well placed and the decision to hold a special legislative session is politically sensible.

No seat-holder in the state legislature would argue that Virginia doesn't face the need for enormous improvements in its transportation system that will require unprecedented amounts of dollars. Northern Virginia in particular is looking at a staggering list of improvements and new projects to move people by car and by transit. What Gov. Baliles has recognized -- and seeks to avoid by calling a special session -- is a bitter and inconclusive battle between urban and rural areas during the current session of the legislature. That was the prospect, but now it need not happen.

As Gov. Baliles noted, periodic tax increases only postpone the larger solutions because of sectional competition. Instead, he is recommending that money for construction of new roads come from bonds, tolls and similar sources that would be paid off by those who "use the highways during the life of the roads." Money for maintenance would be financed through gasoline tax revenues. He did not advocate increasing this tax, even though Senate Finance Chairman Ed Willey has suggested taking this necessary step.

None of this guarantees a smooth compromise that wins roaring approval in both chambers next fall. But by coordinating already with key legislative leaders and by isolating transportation for special, concentrated attention and new financing, Gov. Baliles has paved the way for a sober statewide analysis and a fair resolution.