Red tape in a new federal loan-guarantee program is jeopardizing Metro's plans to upgrade rail station elevators to comply with U.S. law and add safety features to escalators and rail cars, transit officials said yesterday.

Metro plans to spend more than $254 million in the current fiscal year to improve the 24-year-old subway system, which has been plagued by breakdowns in recent years. Of that money, $69.3 million is coming from a private-sector loan to be guaranteed by the U.S. government under a Department of Transportation program announced last fall.

Metro is among the first transit agencies in line to receive the federal credit guarantees, which will enable it to borrow money at a lower interest rate from private lenders over the next decade.

But a Jan. 28 deadline is approaching for closing the first guaranteed loan, and other capital improvement funding is already exhausted, according to Metro officials, who fear they won't be able to award contracts to upgrade the system on time. Transit officials blame red tape for the delay.

Immediately at issue is a $3.8 million project--scheduled to begin this spring--to upgrade 110 Metro elevators to comply with requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, said David Couch, Metro's director of major capital projects.

Other projects to be financed under the first federally guaranteed loan include the installation of safety devices to prevent riders from slipping between platforms and car doors, falling between cars and getting stuck in the teeth of escalators. Guaranteed loans are also earmarked for repairing steel tunnel liners and redecking a bridge at Landover.

"We're kind of up against it," said Ray Feldmann, a Metro spokesman. "We can't go ahead and do these projects without this loan guarantee."

Although senior Transportation Department officials have assured Metro that the loan guarantee will be approved before the deadline, lower-level officials keep imposing new conditions, he said.

"Every time we think we've met the requirements, they come back to us with more requirements," Feldmann said. "It's a huge Catch-22, because we're being asked to meet the federal ADA requirements . . . but we need the approval of another branch of the federal government to enable us to move forward."

Peter Benjamin, Metro's chief financial officer, told Metro directors yesterday that he had received assurances that the Transportation Department "is committed to closing this deal on Jan. 28." He said the main obstacle is a lack of experience in arranging the loan guarantee, the first of its kind under the new program.

"This is the first time that anyone has done one of these," he said. "There's no model, no pattern."

Metro has already exhausted $185 million in capital improvement funds available this fiscal year, recently awarding contracts for escalator repairs ($24.8 million) and new brakes ($10.6 million) on Metro cars. The biggest single capital improvement project, a $400 million program to rehabilitate 364 Breda cars over several years, is scheduled to begin in fiscal 2001.

Metro officials hope that once the first federal loan guarantee is approved, it will be easier to obtain approvals for bigger projects in subsequent years.