FEW IF ANY LOCAL scholars have mastered Metro Math I, which is the study of this region's logarithmic bus and subway fares and their relationship, if any, to rider destinations and/or transfers. But next week, the course will get even tougher for certain commuters: in addition to factoring in some fat new increases in Metro's projected deficits, the same people who brought us the most complicated fare schedule in the country have come up with another brilliant challenge.Having uncovered an apparent outbreak of suburban fare-cheats (or are they people who still don't know what they're supposed to pay?), Metro has hired Inspector Clouseau to set a trap.

Anyone boarding a rush-hour bus that crosses jurisdictional boundaries or suburban fare zones will have to get a punched paper ticket from the driver. All passengers must keep their papers in order, for these tickets must be surrendered for review before people will be let out. Few will make it to freedom, anyway -- since back doors will be locked and, up front, new waves be attempting to board. This way, everything will be consolidated into one cozy area: fare-collecting, punching and distributtion of tickets, passport control and entrances and exits, if any, of all passengers. When drivers are able to free themselves from these activities, presumably they will try to operate the buses, too.

For those who wish to study a text, there is a college-level brochure available on the buses. It is complete with tables, illustrations and a list of those routes on which the traps will be set, how to transfer if you have to, and what to do if you mess up. What this brochure doesn't say is what any kindergartner can figure out in the first place -- that this ridiculous plan isn't going to work. It is a formula for calamity on wheels, another in a series of insane ways to repel would-be and have-been users of mass transit.