After years of fragmented efforts, Washington area governments are on the verge of an agreement to begin giving bicyclists what they've long wanted.

A plan before the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments proposes a larger, safer, interconnected network of trails; uniform signs and regulations; better support facilities; and an education program designed to encourage more respect for bicycle commuters.

A key element of the proposal is the completion of 1,000 miles of interlocked, mostly off-road loops and side trails that would link remote suburban trails to the city. Another important element is the education program, which would encourage cooperation between bicyclists and drivers.

The ambitious plan, put together by a committee of bicycle representatives from each jurisdiction and the National Park Service, was requested by COG. If approved, it would become part of COG's Regional Transportation Plan to ease the area's traffic congestion, expected to be adopted by July.

Adoption of the plan would mark the first time in the Washington area that bicycle transportation has received official recognition on an inter- jurisdictional level and would open the way for federal transportation funding not available before for bicycle projects.

"There's a great deal of support for it," said Jon Williams, a COG senior transportation planner. "I don't think there's any question there will be a bicycle element in the {regional transportation} plan."

Bicycle advocates say the time is ripe for a coordinated regional plan. Concerns about traffic gridlock, the high cost of road building, air pollution and the increasing need of many families to trim their budgets have coalesced to give bicycling a new respectability.

"We've seen a massive transition in people's thinking," said Tom Pendleton, head of COG's Bicycle Committee.

But how much of the plan COG will adopt or how fast the various governments would put up money to turn plans into reality remains to be seen. A major objective of the Bicycle Committee's proposal is to get 5 percent of the area's commuters out of their cars and on bikes by 2000, less than a decade off.

COG estimates that no more than 1 percent of the area's 1.6 million rush-hour commuters use bicycles today. The number of rush-hour commuters is projected to increase as much as 17 percent in the next five years, according to COG estimates.

An upwelling of citizen discontent over traffic congestion in recent years has officials looking for answers. But building new roads is not always possible in highly developed surburban areas. Even when it is, it's extremely expensive, ranging from $2 million to $10 million a mile, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"There's a recognition that it's time to start thinking of the automobile as what you fall back on when nothing else works," Pendleton said.

Although costs for establishing bicycle routes vary widely, such work is always cheaper than major road construction.

In many ways, the COG bicycle proposal is running well behind other efforts. Most jurisdictions already have an official bicycle plan. The National Park Service worked with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to develop the proposal for interconnecting loops, which it plans to complete as Congress appropriates money.

Many people were surprised when the 101st Congress, which adjourned last month after months of hand-wringing over deficit reduction, set aside $7 million to acquire a 4.3-mile wooded section of the abandoned Old Chessie Railroad spur near the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Northwest Washington. That section will become part of a new hiking-biking greenway to be named the Capital Crescent Trail.

If the money hadn't been appropriated, the land would have been sold to developers.

"It was a moment in time we had to seize," said Kingman Gould Jr., a Washington businessman and conservationist who put up interim funding for more than a year to keep the land off the market until the National Park Service could acquire it.

The Park Service took possession of the segment last week, completing public ownership of the 11-mile railway that was built more than 75 years ago to haul coal from Silver Spring to a federally owned power plant in Georgetown.

As additional funds become available, the vines that cover the rusted tracks will be hacked away and the ties removed to make way for a hard-surface trail. The new trail will provide an off-road route for bicyclists traveling from Silver Spring to Bethesda and downtown as well as an alternative route for bicycles on the crowded C&O Canal near Georgetown.

In another part of the city, a similar campaign has begun to buy the abandoned Metropolitan Branch railway that traces a section of Metro's Green Line from Union Station to Fort Totten before it swings north to Silver Spring. A Metropolitan Branch Trail would provide access to downtown from Prince George's County and complete a loop by joining in-town and Potomac shoreline routes to the outer end of the Rock Creek Trail.

Several jurisdictions have begun standardized bicycle education programs in elementary schools with the objective of having everyone riding to the same set of rules and guidelines by the turn of the century.

All jurisdictions generally recognize that existing trails must be connected if they are going to be widely used. Some trails travel to the end of a jurisdiction and stop. Others dead-end at obstacles, such as waterways or major highways.

Many local plans include improvements that would connect these trails and fix unsafe areas.

Bicycle advocates counter skepticism about getting people to commute by bike by pointing out that plenty of Washingtonians already ride bikes. A 1988 Washington Post survey found that more than 40 percent of area residents participate in bicycling activities. One in two Americans owns a bike, according to the Bicycle Federation of America.

So what would make a Washingtonian use a bike to get to work? According to a 1989 poll of passengers on Metro's Orange Line, danger from cars is the number one reason for not riding a bike.

Bicycle advocates say the off-road loop system and other items in the COG plan would be major steps toward getting people on bikes regularly.

But that in itself won't do it, says Bill Silverman, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. "We need showers in the workplace and safe, dry places to store bikes," he said. Showers and parking facilities are addressed in the COG proposal.

While the inter-regional plan seems like a huge undertaking, bicycle advocates are optimistic that much of it will become a reality.

"Washington is a bicycle town," said Rich Metzinger, bicycle coordinator for the National Park Service. "It's relatively flat, has a mild climate and wide roads. You just don't find that in many cities."