Voters going to the polls in Orange County today will have a major opportunity to help relieve some of the traffic congestion choking the county's streets and freeways. All they have to do is punch yes in the box next to Measure M.

Yes, if enough people favor the measure, as they should, the sales tax will be increased by a half-cent for a period of 20 years. That is estimated to cost the average consumer $50 to $75 a year. We do not lightly recommend a tax increase. Nor do voters, understandably, readily improve tax increases put before them.

But this is one measure that deserves support. The sales-tax increase is modest. And the decreased traffic congestion and freeway, surface-street and rail improvements that can be bought with the $3.1 billion the extra half-cent will raise make the moderate increase a trade-off that taxpayers and consumers should be willing to make.

The alternative is obvious. In 1984, voters turned down a proposed 1-cent sales-tax increase for transportation. Residents have been paying the price for that rejection in evenworse congestion and erosion of the quality of life in the county.

All the other major urban counties, except for San Bernardino, which has a similar tax before voters, have already voted half-cent sales tax increases for transportation. The need to do the same in Orange County is so obvious today that many of the most ardent opponents of the rejected 1984 measure have become strong boosters of Measure M. We urge residents to join them with a yes vote.

One other controversial issue on today's ballot worthy of special note is Measure N in Irvine that seeks to strike the words "sexual orientation" from the protections listed in the city's human rights ordinance. Sadly, too much controversy has been focusing on homosexuality instead of the real issue, which is discrimination. Residents should resist the attempt to weaken the protections provided by removing gays and lesbians from the law. Prejudice must be rejected wherever it is found. It is the basis of Measure N and demands a no vote.

TIMES BALLOT CHOICES:Measure M (Half-cent sales tax increase for transportation) YES

Measure N (Irvine Human Rights Ordinance amendment) NO

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