Metro's board members, wholly owned subsidiaries of the local governments that send them to the Thursday board meetings, are no longer able to run the railroad properly.

The board has just adopted a $327 million operating budget after five months of hearings and bluster that would simply not be tolerated in a city that did not have Congress to point to as a better example of how not to get things done.

For reasons beyond the control of the individual board members, they are forced to spend most of their time figuring out how to shift some of their share of the expense of subsidizing Metro to somebody else. They spend almost no time addressing the core questions:

What is Metro's primary mission? To build a railroad? To run an integrated bus and subway system? To maximize ridership? To minimize costs?

Are the buses and subways running properly? If not, why not?

I contend that they are not and that the major reasons are the transit system's financing mechanisms and the organizational structure of its board of directors. It is time to restructure both so the board members can represent the transit system and its riders, not just local and state governments and their biases about transit in general and their own budgets in particular.

The product Metro is supposed to produce, reliable public transit, is becoming less, not more, reliable despite a major shakeup of its principal managers since Richard S. Page became general manager three years ago.

According to Metro's own statistics, ridership, while enjoying impressive growth during the gasoline crunch and the subway expansion of the late 1970s, is now falling short of projections in times of rising fares, stabilizing gasoline prices and declining Metro performance.

The same self-reinforcing circle that destroyed privately owned transit in the United States is beginning at Metro: Ridership drops, which means revenues drop. Fares are increased and the maintenance budget is cut. More riders leave because fares go up and reliability goes down.

Metro's own statistics point to this trend. At the start of the fiscal year last July, Metro promised its buses would travel an average of 2,500 miles between road calls (a euphemism for breakdowns). So far this year, the average is 2,182 miles. Metro needs 258 subway cars (out of the 298 it owns) to run the rush hour with the kind of train service that keeps people smiling. The goal for this year was to reach that level only 75 percent of the time. So far, the goal has been reached only 55 percent of the time, so passengers wait longer for fewer, shorter, more crowded trains.

Regular Metro riders are only too familiar with late buses, balky farecard machines, broken escalators and optimistic announcements that "the Blue-Orange line is experiencing a 10-to-15-minute delay" when, in fact, the delay is 30 minutes. The fare structure is too complicated and unspeakable to discuss.

At first blush these appear to be management problems, not board problems, and they may be. Page's new managers do seem inordinately devoted to organizational charts, chalk talks and appeals for more money as explanations for the fact the trains don't run on time.

It may also be, however, that Page's managers have the solutions but have not been given the time to put them in place. Page estimated recently that his three top operations chiefs -- all relatively new to their jobs -- have spent "50 percent of their time" in the past five months caring for and feeding the board's byzantine budget process.

No business could afford or would tolerate that. On one recent Thursday, Metro committee and board meetings lasting five hours were devoted almost entirely to arcane line- item budget issues that in many organizations would have been delegated to the administrative staff after overall cost figures and personnel ceilings were established by the board. A total of 62 taxpayer-paid employes representing 15 different local and state governmental or quasigovernmental organizations took part in the meetings. Since most of those people are office directors or assistant directors in various government agencies, it is safe to assume most of them make as much as $40,000 annually, which means that those meetings alone -- forget all the little subcommittee and subgroup meetings that preceded them -- cost the taxpayers almost $6,000 in salaries.

At one point, a financial calculation was challenged by Joseph Alexander, a board member from Fairfax County. Metro staff members attempted to answer the question; Alexander then turned to a county staff member to ask him what he thought.

"I don't like this process," interrupted Thomas Downs, D.C. transportation director and Metro board member. "We're playing Who Do You Trust?"

The staffs of the local jurisdictions often don't trust Metro, but they trust each other even less. The name of the game for Fairfax County, remember, is to devise a formula that gets the District of Columbia to pay for Fairfax transit. Everyone can play; the District has its own set of proposals that would reduce its budget at the expense of Fairfax County's.

Because of this situation, every substantive Metro board action on budget and thus on operations has to be approved by each of eight local governments, including not only the political representatives but also the technical staff members. The result is administrative paralysis.

That is a dramatically different situation than the one envisioned when Metro's founders set out to build a subway. At that time, in the mid 1960s, little thought was given to who would run the trains; the board's job was to design a railroad and award construction contracts -- largely funded with federal money. No thought was given to an annual operations subsidy because the subway, it was confidently predicted, would pay for itself. The buses were someone else's problem.

Today, the subway and bus systems combined cost local governments $160 million annually, up 34 percent from the $118 million of 1980. Next year the subsidy will be about $177 million. Riders will pay the rest of the operating budget in fares and can expect another increase.

The subsidy will continue to increase, not only because of inflation but also because the subway system is still expanding and additional service will mean additional costs. At the same time, federal aid for transit operations is drying up. That means the petty budget arguments among local governments are only going to get worse and that the six voting members of the Metro board are going to be less and less able to look out for the system instead of for their own budgets.

Much has been written about the need for a regionwide tax to finance Metro and remove the subsidy from local budgets and taxes. While a regional tax would relieve the annual budget silliness, it would do nothing for the overall organizational difficulties that also contribute to Metro's paralysis.

No one on the present board can afford to have the best interests of public transit as a constituency. No one is there to see that Metro's managers are left alone long enough for the rest of us to find out if they can manage a transit system that carries more than 600,000 passengers a weekday on 1,600 rush- hour buses and 258 (maybe) subway cars.

Thus, the hard questions, the core questions, go unanswered year after year after year as Metro's leadership bogs down again in an endless review of line items.

What to do? There are several possible answers to this two-part equation and each has pluses and minuses. The first part -- financial reform -- is easier.

My choice would be a payroll tax, which would be collected in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs as well as the District and dedicated to Metro's operating subsidy. Some provision -- either a small total payroll or a minimum number of employes -- would exclude small business from the tax.

The most r esecent estimates on such a tax are several years old, but a 1 percent tax has been estimated as adequate to cover Metro's operating subsidy and debt service costs. It would have the added advantage of giving Metro management a predictable source of revenue; fares and service levels would have to be adjusted so the system could live within its means. That's not easy, but it's better than what's done now.

The second part, changing the structure of the board, is harder. At present, D.C., Maryland and Virginia each have two voting and two alternate members. They are technically chosen by the D.C. Council and by transit commissions in Virginia and Maryland. In reality, the mayor and the D.C. Council each select one voting member; the suburban voting members are selected by the Fairfax and Arlington county boards and by the councils and executives of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. With the exception of Montgomery County's delegate and D.C.'s Downs, all present voting board members are also locally elected politicians.

The states are playing an increasingly important role in board policy and, as has historically been the case, Maryland is philosophically in front of Virginia. Maryland now contributes 75 percent of the Montgomery and Prince George's shares of the operating subsidy, so the state's Transportation Department has the ability -- and sometimes exercises it -- to control the Montgomery and Prince George's votes. But the state is not on the board. As Virginia's financial participation in Metro inevitably increases, the Virginia delegates will find themselves similarly bound. The two states belong on the board because they are there already -- you just can't see them.

Thus, the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the D.C. mayor should each select three members of a nine-member board. Each state contingent would have a member from the public at large, and two locally elected officials. The governors and the mayor would each have the right to veto fare increases and the choice of a general manager. The other policy issues would belong to the board, with the majority ruling.

This mix would keep the board close enough to local political realities, but far enough away that a frustrated budget officer from a local jurisdiction would not be able to torpedo an inexpensive marketing initiative in a $300 million budget by whispering in somebody's ear. No two of the major players could jam a fare increase or a general manager down the throat of a third.

These changes, simple to outline, will be difficult to achieve. They require that identical legislative language be adopted by the Congress, the Maryland and Virginia legislatures and the D.C. City Council. It is time to get started.