From its birth amid the optimism of the American bicentennial through its first quarter-century, Metro was a point of pride every bit as important to Washingtonians as the Redskins and the Smithsonian.

Our transit system was like us, smart and safe, not so flashy but clean and steady -- a perfect match for our self-image as educated, purposeful, dependable folks.

By last week, when Chief Executive Richard White said that Metro was in danger of falling into a "death spiral" of plummeting service and fleeing riders, it was obvious that the system has become most dependable as a generator of bad news. Then, as if to punctuate White's words, a Red Line train smashed into another train at Woodley Park.

How did Metro come to such a thud? Only a few months ago, the American Planning Association's magazine credited Metro with sparking the extraordinary development both of Washington's new downtown and of vibrant suburban clusters such as Ballston, Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Now, Metro brings to mind overzealous police arresting passengers for eating a bite of a PayDay candy bar or jabbering too loudly on a cell phone; workers who ignore sprinkler alarms or scream at a pregnant woman; and trains that break down, arrive late and never seem to have any seats available.

Suddenly, there are rumblings about giving Metro the secure funding stream it's never had, buying the rail cars it has long needed. Kevin Moore, a Silver Spring resident, is starting up Metroriders.org, an online community, to push the system to "stop regularly shooting themselves in the foot. The system is getting older," he says, "but a lot of the problem is management -- handling crowds, running the parking system honestly, all these incidents of incompetence."

What went wrong? "We had a relatively new, lightly used system for many years," says T. Dana Kauffman, the Fairfax County supervisor who becomes Metro's board chairman next year. "After years of virtually begging to get more federal riders onto the system, we finally succeeded just as our roads hit gridlock. So one contributor to our failure is our success."

Then, just as the system began to show its age, Metro hit riders with back-to-back fare increases, the first in eight years. "Folks assume that if you pay more, you'll get more," Kauffman says. Instead, we get less overcrowded cars, dirty stations, surly workers.

Those who know Metro say the current cavalcade of problems was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen. Zachary Schrag, a George Mason University history professor who wrote his thesis on Metro's history, opened a file on the system's decline five years ago, labeled it "Slump of '99" and collected news of delays, breakdowns and other symptoms of a system that had been chronically starved of maintenance money. As long ago as 1986, a Metro staff memo laid out a grim future, warning that unless the system jacked up its maintenance budget, it would face a day of reckoning that would look awfully like today.

But Metro decided instead to finish building the Green Line. That wasn't a callous turn away from festering ills; rather, it reflected a new political truth. The Reagan administration had cut support of operating costs for transit; federal money went mainly for construction. After dutifully paying into Metro's first phases, Prince George's County deserved its share of service.

Schrag argues that Metro has created enormous wealth throughout the region, but the system has not gotten its share of the property tax receipts it generated in places such as Rosslyn and Columbia Heights.

"Metro comes from an era when we had presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, even Nixon -- who said we're a wealthy society, let us build great things," Schrag says. "Nobody's talked that way since the California tax revolt in 1978. But our region totally depends on Metro."

We have no choice but to save Metro. It's our only transportation mode with excess capacity. It keeps untold thousands of cars off the roads -- anyone who drove to work along streets near the Red Line late last week got a grim taste of life without Metro. It is still the engine of our most promising growth.

Fairfax and Arlington voters gave Metro a boost last week by supporting bonds for transit. But the system needs lots more help. "This," Kauffman says, "is gut-check time."