John F. Herrity, who grumbled about Metro for years because he claimed Northern Virginia's money was being spent wisely, now says the time for Metro has come.

"I'm a very enthusiastic supporter of the concept of Metro," Herrity said last week in a debate with his incumbent opponent in the race for Congress from Northern Virginia's 8th District.

That opponent Herbert E. Harris II, whose pro-Metro credentials are impeccable, has challenged the sincerity of Herrity's new-found affection for rail mass transit.

So, for what is probably a first in Washington area congressional politics, one of the major issues in the race is who loves Metro the most.

To try to paint hater at heart, Democrat Harris brought two Metro experts - former Metro acting general manager Warren Quenstedt and Fairfax Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D-Lee), a member of the Metro board of directors - to a news conference yesterday morning outside the room where the Fairfax Board of Supervisors meets.

While Herrity, who is chairman of the board, sat alone inside the board room waiting for the regular Monday meeting to begin, Quenstedt and Alexander stood outside and said things that might have made Herrity's ears turn red.

"I don't know of anything he [Herrity] has hdone to actively support Metro," said Quenstedt.

"Herrity is undertaking to create the impression that he is a supporter of Metro," Alexander said.

The two men said the Metro project is the most important issue for the 18th District because it concerns how people who live there get to work. Such an issue, Quenstedt said "shouldn't be in inexperienced hands."

Harris, a two-term incumbent who serves, on the House District subcommittee that has handled Metro matters in the past, has been a supporter of rail transit since 1968, when he became a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Metro board.

Herrity, who is as experienced in opposing Metro as Harris is in supporting the project, explained in an interview that he opposed Metro in past years "because Metro was not telling the truth."

He cited Metro's original promise, made in 1968, that it would serve Washington without from local jurisdictions. THe local subsidy for the coming year is $80 million.

"I don't like to be told stories by Metro or anyone else," Herrity said.

The board chairman said he supports Metro now and in the future because "I am a man who believes in the here and now. Metro is a fact, you're left with Metrorail." If he is elected to Congress, Herrity said he will fight for federal funding for Metro.

Herrity, who is considered to be locked in a tight race with Harris, said that "of course public opinion has something to do with" his support for Metro. "Sometimes you take positions contrary to public opinion, but not on something of that size (Metro)."

In yesterday's press conference, the Harris supporters also brought up a question that has evoked sharp exchanges between Harris and Herrity in their recent debates - namely, what congressional committee will funnel federal money to Metro in the future.

Herrity said he's been told by the House Republican leadership that, if elected, he will be assigned to the Public Works and Transportation Committee. He said he wants to be on that committee because he believes that committee will be making the future money decisions for Metro.

That committee handles federal spending for mass transit systems across the country, and Transportation Secretary Brock Adams has repeatedly said he wants Metro to get its federal money the same way that cities like Miami and Baltimore get theirs. But Harris and his supporters said yesterday that Metro funding will be handled by a House District subcommittee chaired by Harris.

"(Herrity's ideas) would place us in competition with the rest of the United States," Quenstedt said yesterday. He said the best way to insure fast funding for Metro is for Congress to continue its special direct appropriations that have nothing to do with the money that other cities compete for.