SO BATHED IN red ink has been the history of Metro that yet another report of financial distress falls on more than a few deaf ears, not to mention empty pockets. Neverthless, a Metro board committee has hit the panic button once again, with a call for some unpleasant moves to curb operational losses. But before anyone answers the call, a closer look at the situation, coupled with a bit of calm, is useful -- since the latest cries for help may be too shrill.

One of the committee's proposals would add a nickel to every fare; others are part of a cut-in-runs policy, including substantial reductions in weekend and nighttime service. There is another way, but it's the one most likely to send local government officials scurrying for cover: an increase in local government payments for the regional transportation system. If you just voted no to all of the above, that's all right -- for a while, anyway -- because this is only the middle of Metro's fiscal year and there's no reason the question the timing of the latest proposals. For at least the last eight FYs at Metro, the books have looked bad, but never has the board gone for a fare increase in mid-year; besides, it would come only six months after a record increase went into effect.

And here's a potentially big financial item: Metro officials still don't know how much the next labor contract decisions, expected by November, may cost them; it's likely to be a bundle. If the labor costs continue to soar as they have as a result of the fat cost-of-living provision in effect, those cuts in service -- and that means jobs, too -- are bound to be severe.

So rather than ramming through any quick raise-the-fares-lower-the-service policy, Metro's board members should do what every other study of the system for the last eon has suggested: 1) get rid of the ancient spaghetti of bus routes left over from World War II and design service that really would complement subway routes, and 2) come up with a fare structure that can be explained in fewer than two volumes and that might well prove more lucrative than any nickel-and-diming at this point.

What individual residents consider "good service" is likely to be the closest thing they can find to door-to-door transportation on a useful schedule. Providing that kind of service requires a delicate balance of routing, fare schedules and revenue from local governments. How this balance might be struck -- rather than an emergency fare boost or service cut -- should be the subject of the public hearings that Metro officials are about to call.