Montgomery County's Ride-On minibus service was started about three years ago to improve transit service in the dense Silver Spring area and to put small buses on streets whose residents would never accept large buses.

When Metro's subway reached Silver Spring last February, the county expanded its Ride-On service from a few small routes to 22 routes that stretch from White Flint to Langley Park. All of them connect with the Silver Spring Metro station.

The routes have been enormously popular. The fare is only 25 cents and the system is carrying an average of 12,700 people a day - 1,500 more than the county transportation planners projected.

The county has spent a total of $1.9 million buying 79 buses without federal aid. By avoiding federal aid, the county has avoided federal strings.

Chief among those strings would be requirements to protect "the interests of employes affected by" purchases made with federal assistance. Ride-On replaced some Metro bus routes. If Ride-On buses had been bought with federal assistance, the labor contract of the Metro drivers would probably have fallen on Ride-On as well.

"We figure that in a year and a half we recoup enough in savings that it pays us back for forgoing federal aid," said Genevieve Leary of the county's transportation planning staff.

Ride-On employs 99 full-time drivers, 18 part-time drivers and 24 substitutes. They receive an average wage of $5.30 an hour. Seven mechanics have been added to the county garage to work on Ride-On equipment.

Like all public transit services in the United States, Ride-On loses money. Operating costs for the new fiscal year are estimated at $1.8 million. Revenue from fares is projected at $850,000.