For a few balmy months this winter, Stan Ather allowed himself to dream of clear roadways and regular hours. In February, Ather saw that fantasy fall under two feet of snow.

"Things completely fell apart," sighed Ather last week, still bleary from a solid momth of clearing snow and patching potholes. "I haven't been getting a whole lot of sleep."

Ather is the District's chief resident engineer. He and 65 workmen with 17 trucks are responsible for maintaining 1,250 miles of District street. In the best of times it is a monumental job. In February, it was nearly impossible.

"We have one person for every 20 miles of street," said the 49-year-old Ather. "It's not physically possible for our men to see every inch of street."

Early last week it seemed like nearly every inch of street needed looking after. When the mountain of snow was finally cleared away, it uncovered a sea of potholes. Foxholes really, the kind that bend axles and rattle dispositions. Ather said the bleak scene made last winter's maintenance problems seem manageable.

"What was spread over two months last winter we got this year in two days," said Ather, who has engineered pothole patching operations in the District for the past 10 years.

The most obvious cause of the pothole plague was fluctuating weather conditions. During the warm days in January, moisture seeped into porous concrete and asphalt. When the snow and ice followed, that moisture was frozen and forced to expand. The pavement cracked, and traffic did the rest.

But experts at the Federal Highway Administration say the age of those roads is a more fundamental cause of the deterioration.

"Trying to patch a pothole is like trying to cure smallpox with a Band-aid," maintains Richard Hay, chief of materials research division of the Highway Administration. "Potholes are just a symptom. Resurfacing is really the answer."

But with municipal budgets tight and the cost of labor and materials spiraling upward, cities are delaying repaving projects in favor of short-term patching. As a result, says Hay, there are more potholes each winter.

"The problem is partly technical and partly political," said Chuck Scheffey, director of Research at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The technical problem is that no road can be completely protected against decay. The political problem, says Scheffey, is that budget considerations often lead to patching operations when more expensive surgery is required.

"With patching, you haven't cured the problem; you've just filled the hole."

Just filling the holes was more than enough of a job for Ather and his crew. In four days last week, road crews patching around the clock used 2,400 tons of asphalt. That was a little more than onequarter of the city's allotment for this fiscal year.

Because the pothole problem was so extensive, the city was forced to hire private contractors to help with the patching work. That cut into Ather's budget, which was already depleted by unexpected snow removal operations.

"We're going to have to get some help from the mayor," said Ather hopefully.

The one thing Ather got plenty of during the fractious momth of February was public opinion.

"There's a lot of people who will call you up and thank you for fixing the holes," said Ather last week. "And there's a lot of people who will call up and cuss you out for not getting to that hole before they did."

Ather can understand the frustration. He hits the potholes, too.