LIKE IT OR NOT (and we've had more than a few reservations), the Metro Farecard is apparently here to stay. Local government officials -- already embroiled in many other distutes, petty and large -- have concluded that however cumbersome and/or inefficient the system has been up to now, anything else would invite endless intramural feuds involving politics and pocketbooks. They are saying that fares based on mileage are more equitable and flexible -- probably more lucrative, too -- than any flat token system. If this helps keep Metro's fragile suburban-city balance together for more important deliberations, so be it -- deciding who pays for how much service will take all the harmony Metro's partners can muster.

Besides, there are claims that the Farecard system is working better these days, and we confess that our recent experience bears this out. At its best, the Farecard machine also is capable of handling discounts for the elderly and handicapped, accepting flashpasses and adjusting to different fares for different rides at different hours. True, people can do all this, too, without spitting back your dollar bill or going catatonic in mid-sale; but as Metro's current labor contract proceedings point up all too expensively, at least the machines don't have to have a full cost-of-living allowance adjusted four times a year.

So fix and streamline those machines -- and then prusue other fare ideas, such as a machine that Metro is studying that would allow riders to buy Farecards with major credit cards. These have worked for airlines, and they might encourage larger advance purchases.

All of these improvements should diminish the complaints and allow the regional leaders to tackle the far more complicated issues of a better formula for allocating Metro bus and rail costs among the local jurisdictions. At this point, each government has a different proposal for dividing the costs and, as former Metro general manager Theodore C. Lutz noted, each one "just happens to work out to the advantage of the government that proposes it." Somewhere in between -- unless and until Metro acquires its own source of local tax revenue -- the region's leaders should simplify their calculations, agree on a formula -- and stick with it.