The exasperated man in the blue sport coat stood in the back row of WCBS's Manhattan television studio.

His accent was unmistakable. "I want," he shouted hoarsely, "I want 30 seconds for Brooklyn."

He got his air time as did some of the other 80 invited spectators and four main panelists who had been shoehorned into the high-ceilinged auditorium.

The program was "Westway: Whose Billion-Dollar Baby?" In 22 minutes, they were to debate the fate of an embattled 42-mile, $1.156 billion highway redevelopment profect that would radically reshape the face and future of lowe Manhattan.

Call it the West Side Super Bowl. The audience had been evenly divided, sporting blud-on-white "Mass Transit, Not Highways" buttons or red-on-white "Save Westways" buttons. Messages were unfurled; placards raised; spectators cheered, applauded, groaned, hissed, stamped their feet on the steep wooden bleachers to register both approval and derision.

An anti-Westway panelist derided the project as a "horizontal World Trade Center" and "a political fraud."

Building trades leader Peter Brennan told critics to "get off our backs. We want this city to go and we're going to build it."

So intense was the exchange that pro-highway onlookers booed their own representative, Planning Commissioner Robert Wagner Jr., who, following the lead of Mayor Ed Koch, recently assumed a pro-Westway position. In turn, the befuddled young Wagner referred to the plan as the "Manhattan Project" to more shouts and cheers.

It has become fashionable to refer to the Westway proposal as "more than a highway." It might also be noted that the controversy surrounding it is more than a debate.

"It's a war. It is a war against highways and automobiles," explains Lowell Bridwell, a one-time federal highway administrator who directs the West Highway Project. In Bridwell's six years as project director, his office has spent $18 million on planning without paving a single inch of new roadway.

Bridwell dismisses all the arguments - conflicting cost estimates, increased traffic congestion, pollution, neighborhood destruction, even charges that Westway-created landfill in the Hudson River could lead to flooding of New Jersey cities - as bullets in a bigger battle.

"It's a power struggle," acknowledges a leading anti-Westway organizer, author and Village Voice columnist Paul Du Prul. He says the environmental issues are "tactical battles surrounding a much larger issue: Who is going to control the growth and physical future of this city."

And why has all this fury been focused on Westway? "In a sense, "it's the only game in town," says Du Prul. "It is the only major battle going on. It is the biggest physical project that will be built in New York for decades to come."

"The kindest thing I can say about the opponents' statements is that they are misleading," charges Bridwell. "A more accurate statement is that they don't know what they are talking about and are lying."

Whatever their motivations, Bridwell's opposition appears numerous. It includes a long list of neighborhood and environmental organizations, all Manhattan's representatives to the city council, locally elected state senators, assemblymen, and two of the three borough congressmen.

One surprise anti-Westway bedfellow Triborough Bridge Authority consultant Robert Moses, who directed construction of the original elevated West Side Highway more than 50 years ago. Moses said he would use the money for low-cost housing.

But the pro-highway side is not without support, including the mayor, Governor Hugh Carey, the Chamber of Commerce, cultural organizations and the central labor council. The burden of its defense has fallen on an amalgam known as the Business/Labor Working Group, an organization formed to spur the economic regeneration of New York City.

The organization has called Westway its "number one priority for urban revitalization" and a "rallying point for private commitment and investment."

The project reflects the city's penchant for the spectacular. The eightlane roadway will be built "outboard" - on landfill set between the existing river's edge and the rotting finger piers on the western edge of Wall Street.

At approximately $5,000 an inch, it would be the most expensive highway ever constructed. It also would be one of the most ambitious: Half of its distance would be underground, with auto exhaust dispersed through three seven-story-tall, high-pressure fans.

The proposal not only would include demolition of the existing highway and waterfront structures, but it would create 110 new acres of land earmarked for residential and commercial development as well as a promised 93 acres of riverfront parkland in Promenades.

Parks and river views aside, Westway could be Wall Street's last oppotunity to remain the economic hub to Manhattan. Developer Lewis Rudin of Rudin Management acknowledges that although rents in his lower Manhattan office are half those of midtown, space still goes begging. And David Rockefeller, whose 17-year-old Chase Manhattan Bank Tower was the last privately financed high rise constructed in this area, is said to have both his heart and a sizeable amount of investment dollars located here.

Rockefeller had pledged that Westway would stimulate $7 billion in private investment in the area within 10 years. Westway backers claim the project will create more than 30,000 jobs and add $40 million in real estate estate taxes into the city's depleted coffer.

Westway's $1.156 billion price tag makes it one of the most expensive highways ever proposed. Yet, even that figure is an estimate in 1976 dollars. Value is reassessed every two years and the amount is expected to go higher.

But what makes the project so attrative to representatives of this capital-starved city is not how much the highway initially costs, but who does the paying.

In 1971, two years before the original elevated highway collapsed under the weight of an overloaded asphalt truck, the roadway had been made part of the federal interstate highway system. This signaled more than the right to post flashy new red, white and blue signposts: It meant that the city was eligible to reconstruct it with money from the federal Highway Trust Fund.

So, where the collapse of a highway normally would foretell financial hardship for a muncipality, New York City officials have found what they term "a unique and timely opportunity" - with short-term and long-term benefits "that are intensified by the city's present financial situation."

"Westway," says developer Lewis Rudin, "will show the rest of the country - the world - that New York is ready now to rebuild itself, ready to resurrect itself out of the ashes of bankruptcy.

"All this signals, hey, New York is on its way back.

"Look, we've designed the finest, most environmentally sound highway system ever. The federal government hands us $1 billion. The state government hands us $100 million. The city government and the taxpayers put up zilch."

"And here we are, bankrupt city, going to beg Washington, asking them to give us an extension of some aid packages. And they say: 'Why you ninnies - we've given you a billion dollars. Why don't you take it?' And we say: 'Well, we want it another way.'"

Not surprisingly Westway opponents turn that argument around. "At a time when Congress is telling New York that we've got to cut back, the more sensible - and God knows what other clinches - the administration seems to be encouraging us to be profligate," says Du Prul. (Profligate is defined as "recklessly expansive" - a term relating to sailors on shore leave).

Du Prul believes that the controversy, which has thus far been confined to Manhattan, could become a national issue when other states realize that four miles of New York roadway will eat up a sizeable percentage of the highway trust fund.

"It's astounding to me that some congressman from East Whatever, Montana, hasn't yet gotten up and screamed that because of Westway his people won't be able to get their broccoli to market," he comments.

Westway opponents want that federal money, too, but for different purposes. They would "trade in" the highway funds, build a more modest $50 million, six-land, street-level roadway, and use the rest to refurbish the city's deteriorating transit system.

Their model is Boston, where then Gov. Francis Sargent in 1970 froze a 90 percent federally funded "inner belt" proposal that would have circled through the city and neighboring towns. Instead, Massachusetts politicians led a successful campaign in Congress allowing local governments to trade in highway funds to 80 percent for mass transit money. Boston in now entitled to $1 billion in funding for transit projects.

Since Congress enacted the trade-in provision, nine other municipalities have transferred authorized highway trust funds into transit projects. Among them is Virginia, which last April transferred about $30 million earmarked for I-66 into funding for the Washington Metro.

A straw poll of 1200 New Yorkers conducted by WCBS-TV found those familiar with the project split evenly for and against. But when informed of the trade-in provision, 67 percent said the funding should be spent on transit instead of Westway.

Whatever the accuracy of such polls, the option to request trade-in rests with two men who oppose it. In his 1974 election campaign, Gov. Carey told a Westside audience that "the concept of a huge truck-laden interstate highway in the Westside corridor is a planning and ecological disaster."

Now the staunchly-pro-highway Carey is facing an uphill battle for re-election and has been characterized as heavily dependant on the political support of the pro-Westway forces.

In 1977, when Mayor Ed Koch was running for election, he was quoted as calling Westside a "economic and environmental disaster." Koch vowed "it will never be built."

In April, Koch went to Albany for a Westway summit meeting with Carey where the mayor apparently wasoffered the deal he could not refuse - transit money and the highway. In exchange for supporting Westway, Carey offered the mayor a package of $800 million in state and federal funds for mass transit, a pledge that the state would develop and maintina the riverfront parkland, and a promise to preserve the current 50-cent subway fare for the net three years.

Spokesmen for Koch somewhat diplomatically have characterized the arrangement as a compromise "that would get the city moving again." Westway advocates such as project director Bridwell say that "Koch walked out with a piece of cake and is going to eat it too."

Opponents, such as Ruth Messinger, a West Side councilwoman, called the arrangement "a political fraud." Messinger claims the governor was making promises he couldn't keep with money he didn't have.

The proposal includes $120 million from the Post Authority and another $40 million from the state to be matched on a 4-to-one basis by federal funds - an arrangement that appears totally independent of the Westway issue. The 50-cent fare is set by the legislature, and any influence Carey might have in holding it at its current level is dependent upon his re-election next fall.

But financial arrangements aside, there are New Yorkers - particularly West Siders - who wouldn't want the highway project if it was given to them for free. "This is one of the best educated, most articulate, politically active communities on the face of the earth," says Messinger. "It's a community that reads, and it knows that the history of New York is the history of billions being made in real estate speculation and development."

Messinger acknowledges that many of her neighbors are on one side, "simply because [of] who's on the other."

Aside from her fears that the highway would create further pollution and traffic congestion, Messinger believes that the simple enormity of the project will avert the city's attentions from the maintenance of existing housing, roadways and utilities. Even Westway project director Bridwell acknowledges that the city's record of upkeep on existing development is "less than exemplary."

The highway itself moves through a deteriorating area of warehouses and light industry that was referred to in a series of interviews variously as "a desert," "a cancer," "a disease," "a disaster" and "a miserable little strip." It is home to an increasing number of artists and writers living in cheap or refurbished lofts - individuals who take to mass urban renewal with the same enthusiasm dogs have for the leash law.

Bridwell, who says construction would force the actual relocation of only 15 persons, claims the support of area residents. But a random sample of interviews found residents so hostile to Westway that some openly threatened the destruction of roadbuilding equipment.

"A lot of people have said, 'It's a land grab by you big real estate guys,'" says Rudin, who is also president of the Association for a better New York. "That's nonsense. There's enough land to develop right here in the city without worrying about more landfills."

Rudin characterizes the opposition as "provincial and shortsighted.

"They're not concerned about the whole city, just their little communities," he says. "What they fail to realize is that Westway will take traffic out of their neighborhoods and actually ease up pollution problems."

However, Rudin says his main concern is suburban commuters, the group he calls "the professional decision makers.

"They don't take mass transit. They don't take subways. But they do make the decision if a company stays or goes."

"Even in Russia, I've been told that the management has some privileges," says Rudin.

"I don't want to have the best mass transit system in the world and find that Mr. Jones took his company to Connecticut because we didn't give him a road to ride on."

If Rudin wants a road to ride on, the New York building trades want one to work on. Unemployment among construction workers is estimated at between 50 and 75 percent. Lack of work is so serious that a local electrician's union negotiated a precedent-shattering work-sharing agreement providing that a member can work only a maximum of 26 works for a single employer before beingreplaced with another member from the hiring hall.

While jobs are the motivating factor in their support for Westway, the trades are unmoved by a detailed - but disputed - study published by two environmental organizations. The paper claimed that 32 percent more jobs would be provided in the construction of a modest roadway and transit rehabilitation than in the more eleborate Westway plan. The study, by attorney Michael Gerrard, further claimed that the jobs would be created faster and would include more local workers and minorities if officials opt for the smaller roadway and transit aid.

Although Gerrard's figures are disputed by the Westway Highway Project, building trades vice president Ed Cleary says he "doesn't want to get into the debate."

Cleary, who claims labor has been lobbying to upgrade the subway system long before the neighborhood and environmental groups entered the fray, believes that the Carey-Koch proposal means they can do both.

The building trades appear moved by the "bird in hand" theory of job creation: If Westways is ready, it should be built. They are supported by the rest of New York's union movement, including service and municipal unions who predominantly rely on mass transportation.

Having already steered Westway through six years of stormy political and legal obstacles, project director Bridwell says that he expected such opposition. "They think they can nibble us to death," he states contemptuously.

That may be the only point of agreement between the opposing factions. Or, as one neighborhood activist quipped, referring to the endangered three-inch perch whose precarious existence has halted construction of a dam in Tennessee: "Maybe we'll just have to dredge the bottom of the Hudson and find our own little snail darter down there."