IF THIS IS to be the Year of Transportation in Virginia -- as declared by Gov. Baliles and concurred in by anyone who uses the roads of the state to any degree -- the gasoline tax has to go up. And if it's going to happen quickly -- while the pump price is dropping anyway -- the House of Delegates should vote for that increase today. Though the proposal approved by the House Finance Committee is more limited than the comprehensive transportation money package sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Edward E. Willey and passed by the Senate, it has the governor's support and paves the way for more action at a special legislative session this fall.

The House committee also has voted to give Gov. Baliles authority to determine how $50 million in highway planning money would be spent to expedite construction -- a power normally held by the highway commissioner and the State Highway and Transportation Board. With the board making recommendations to the governor anyway, the procedure should be efficient.

Both the House and Senate versions call for roughly the same gas tax increase -- approximately 1 cent a gallon, along with certain higher registration and titling fees. Sen. Willey's bill also calls for the phasing out of an 8-cent-a-gallon tax break currently given for ethanol (commonly called gasohol), a proposal that would raise the revenues significantly. That subsidy would be retained under the House version. Though the Senate bill is more substantial, House approval of its committee bill, which has the support of Gov. Baliles, would be sufficient to permit a conference committee to forge an acceptable compromise.

Virginia's roads -- as well as its mass transit systems -- need attention, spelled m-o-n-e-y, and that is why the goveror's call for a special session is important. Right now, House support for more revenues from the gasoline tax is critical to any effective legislative response later this year.