Metro enters 1982 in better financial shape than many big-city transit systems, but that hardly means a clean bill of health. Operating deficits are climbing to record levels, repeated fare increases have stagnated ridership and federal programs that pay for most subway construction are in jeopardy.

Some $4 billion of bus and rail investment has been put in place since the transit authority was formed in 1967. The challenge now is to keep it clear of the destructive spiral of rising fares and waning ridership that has helped to bankrupt transit systems in other U.S. cities.

In a way, that marks a passing from one era to another. With completion in sight for half of the planned 101-mile rail system, the politicians and technocrats who run Metro increasingly worry over how to keep their buses and subways in business rather than how to expand the systems.

For the first time, Metro's annual policy conference at Airlie recently was dominated by issues of service and deficits. Past meetings featured often heated debates among Metro's eight member jurisdictions over securing subway capital funds and whose rail lines would be built first.

At the last conference, general manager Richard Page unveiled a draft budget for fiscal 1983 (beginning July 1, 1982) that would make Metro more dependent than ever on subsidies. Page called for spending $365 million--16 percent more than in the current year--but the Airlie delegates were more interested in how it would be financed.

Under the plan, the system's operating ratio (revenues as a proportion of total spending) would slip two points to 46 percent. Subsidy and debt-service bills payable by the member jurisdictions would rise at least 35 percent, to $206 million. Rising costs, ballooning debt payments and the Reagan administration's phase-out of federal operating aid, which covers about 8 percent of Metro's operating costs, were blamed for that increase.

Most everyone agreed that $206 million was too much. But, predictably, there was little agreement on what to do about it. Once again, Metro was unable to overcome the contrasting political and financial standings of its members. The predominantly Democratic District, which tends to see transit as a public service, somehow had to find common ground with Republican-dominated Arlington, which emphasizes fares.

Many area politicians criticize Metro for alleged low productivity and high wages (workers' contracts provide for quarterly cost-of-living adjustments). Metro officials say wages are indeed high (bus drivers earn $11.51 per hour after three years' experience, according to Metro) and are the key to lowering costs (personnel items account for about 75 percent of the budget). But they say federal regulations and Metro's charter make changes very difficult.

That debate has raged for years, and today is no closer to resolution than ever. In the meantime, the subsidy bills must be paid. A rough consensus has emerged among members to try to hold the operating ratio around 50 percent, while jurisdictions line up dependable revenue sources to assure that the subsidies get paid. Whether that will be possible remains to be seen, however. Page's budget represents a further erosion of Metro's ability to pay for itself.

In addition to pressure from their own taxpayers, the Metro jurisdictions face a federal deadline in August 1982 for arranging "stable and reliable" sources of revenue to cover the subsidies. If they miss the deadline, Metro cannot begin receiving $1.7 billion in federal construction funds, approved under the Stark-Harris law enacted two years ago.

The law gives no precise definition of "stable and reliable," and members have pursued conflicting measures. Maryland's two Metro counties get about 75 percent of their subsidies from the state; the District is considering a bill to provide 100 percent coverage by designating for transit revenues from certain taxes and fees; Virginia's solution, a gasoline tax, will cover only about 30 percent of its bills when the rate rises to 4 percent next July.

For some transit officials, these disparate approaches have underlined the need for something adopted by other cities--a special regional tax to support transit. Gasoline, sales or payrolls might be taxed, but it would be done equitably and all funds generated would go to transit.

Getting members to agree on the terms would be very difficult, but once in place, the theory goes, the tax would pay the bills and free Metro members of "parochial" money concerns that lead them to bicker and set up conflicting instead of standardized fares, thus undoing the idea of a regional transit system.

The regional tax idea also has been debated for years. It was shot down again at Airlie when Maryland delegates, arguing that Annapolis had solved their "stable and reliable" problems by allocating state funds, refused to cooperate. But the idea is certain to come up again as subsidy pressures recur in the years ahead.

Metro is trying to increase ridership, which declined by about 2.6 percent--183 million rides--in fiscal 1981. It was the first annual drop in the system's history, and was blamed largely on two fare increases during the year.

For this fiscal year officials predict slightly better ridership, though less than what it might have been had they had not raised fares again in December--for the third time in 17 months. The 1982 ridership figures are still expected to fall below 1980's 187 million, however.

Page's budget projects 189 million rides in '83. Much of the growth would be due to new rail service, as Yellow Line trains begin linking Gallery Place and National Airport and the Blue Line is extended from the airport south to Huntington. The new track would expand the rail system to 46 miles and 51 stations.

Page's budget also covers measures to improve the mechanical reliability of buses, to clean them more often and to make fare and route information more readily available to the public--all efforts to attract more riders.

The latest round in a long-running battle with the federal government over construction funds concluded last month, when President Reagan signed the continuing-resolution budget bill. Under it, Metro will get $284 million in federal capital grants this fiscal year, enough to cover most of the first phase of a four-year capital program.

Metro officials are girding for a drawn-out fight over 1983 funds. The District wants to reserve for bridge and road repair about half of the $375 million that federal officials want to make available to Metro. Most of the money is a trade-off for canceled interstate highways in the District, so the city has veto power.

Such snags have occurred routinely during the subway system's history and Metro officials say a compromise could very well be worked out. But they concede they would have preferred to have avoided the problem altogether

Each delay raises the likelihood that the full, 101-mile rail system will never be completed. Original plans showed everything in place by 1980, but opening dates for some of the outer spurs have been pushed back to the early 1990s, and given Reagan administration budget cutting, such projections could prove optimistic.