Two wheelchair-bound federal workers were stranded in the cavernous L'Enfant Plaza Metro station for 2 1/2 hours yesterday because the only elevator exit to the street had broken down and gone unrepaired since Wednesday afternoon.

While most of the would-be elevator riders quickly switched to the station's escalators, other handicapped passengers and those leery about the station's steep escalator reboarded the train and got off at another station, intending to walk or take a cab to their destination.

The elevator, which transports Metro riders from the station's mezzanine to the Seventh Street and Maryland Avenue SW exit, broke down at 4 p.m. Wednesday and wasn't repaired until 11 a.m. yesterday, according to Metro officials.

"Why they didn't fix this elevator last night, I do not know," said Lex Frieden, 36, who is director of the National Council on the Handicapped and not one to take being stranded in a subway station lightly.

Frieden and Ken Ogden, who works in the Federal Aviation Administration's public inquiries office, arrived at the elevator separately about 8:30 a.m., traveling from Alexandria's King Street and Montgomery County's Twinbrook stations, respectively.

Told a repair crew had been called at 7 a.m. and was on its way, the two men sat in their wheelchairs and watched as other riders took the escalator to the street.

Frieden, an advocate of public transit who has been confined to a wheelchair since a 1968 automobile accident, said one man on crutches and two cerebral palsy sufferers shunned the station's escalator, deciding instead to ride back to another station and exit there. He and Ogden concluded that such backtracking through the multilevel subway system would be too difficult.

Metro employes at the station declined to discuss the elevator problem. Fady Bassily, Metro's assistant general manager for rail service, said the subway system has a contract with the General Elevator Co. for emergency repair services and had called the firm Wednesday, with no response.

Don Rittler, District manager for the elevator firm, said his company did not learn of the L'Enfant Plaza elevator problem until yesterday morning "and we were not told handicapped people were involved."

Bassily said a lot of wheelchair riders use Metro escalators to exit the stations, "though we don't recommend it." In any case, he said, station attendants offered to take the two men to another station and then transport them to their offices. They refused, he said.

Frieden, who uses a heavy, motorized wheelchair, said no one made such an offer to him.

"I couldn't find anyone who would take charge. The station master suggested I take another car to another stop," Frieden said. "Metro has a brochure that says they'll carry the wheelchair up the escalator if the elevator doesn't work, but mine is too heavy."

Ogden, 41, a polio victim who has a wheelchair without a motor, said one Metro official did offer to help him ride up the escalator. But having changed subway lines and used three Metro elevators en route to the L'Enfant Plaza station, "I wasn't about to ride an escalator, not that one at least."