General Manager Richard S. Page told the Metro Board yesterday that it may be possible to open the Red Line subway extension from Dupont Circle north to Connecticut Avenue and Yuma Street NW late this year instead of May as Metro had scheduled.

To do so, however, would mean more crowded trains and longer waits between them because there are not enough cars to expand and still maintain the same service on the 37 miles now in operation, Page said in an interview later. More cars are scheduled to begin arriving at Metro early next year.

By suggesting publicly that it may be possible to open the three new stations and 2.06 more miles, Page will undoubtedly create substantial pressure within the District of Columbia to make that heppen. The stations -- Woodley Park-Zoo, Cleveland Park and Van Ness-UDC -- serve some of the most influential neighborhoods in Washington and would be the first subway stations in the city west of Rock Creek Park.

"Of course I support the idea," said the Rev. Jerry A. Moore, D.C. councilman and Metro Board member. When asked about the potential budgetary problems an early opening would create, Moore recalled some history. "We opened the Ballston route early in Virginia," he said, "and we all chipped in." Opening to Van Ness-UDC, near the University of the District of Columbia campus, he said, "would relieve the traffic burden in that area a great deal."

Cleatus Barnett, Montgomery County Metro Board member, said "I don't know how the general manager proposes to open early. I believe we're stretched pretty thin" without more cars. He said that before Montgomery County could support an early opening it would seek assurances that existing Red Line service "not be used as a reservoir" for expansion. The Red Line's most heavily used station is at Silver Spring in Montgomery County.

The extension to Van Ness-UDC is expected to give Metro ridership a daily boost of between 30,000 and 40,000 people, assuming the District of Columbia government is willing to make substantial cuts in Connecticut Avenue bus service south of Yuma Street.

Metro's construction work on the three stations and the tunnels connecting them has been proceeding more rapidly than expected, Page said. "From a construction point of view we could be ready by Christmas," Page said. Test trains have made the run from Dupont Circle to Van Ness-UDC already.

Page offhandedly suggested the possibility of the early opening during a discussion of Metro's proposed new budget, the adoption of which is being delayed while the Metro Board awaits recommendations from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Those counties are known to want some reductions in costs and have suggested reduced subway service on weekends as one of several approaches.

There are three ways to reduce subway service: increase the amount of time between trains, cut the number of cars on each train, or some combination of both. Those same three possibilities could be employed to operate more miles of subway with the same number of cars. The problem, however, is that rush-hour trains already are jammed to capacity and an increase in track would only make that problem worse. j

In a meeting with reporters, Page said that he did not know precisely what the costs of an early Van Ness opening would be, although that is being studied by his staff. He said he tossed the idea on the table so the Metro Board would have all the cards when it meets soon to discuss the proposed budget cuts from Maryland.

"If [approval of the] budget is going to run into May," Page said, "it is proper for the board to take a look at" the possible early opening. He said he is concerned not only about the strain on Metro's fleet of cars and the budget implications, but also about "having a subway ready but not open for operation."

Page proposed a budget of $326 million for the year beginning July 1. That was cut by the board in March to $319.3 million and referred to local governments for their comments. The two Maryland counties are understood to want further cuts of between $5 million and $7 million, without reduction in bus service. Passengers would pay 49.3 percent of the budget through fares under the board-referred proposals. The rest would come from local, state and federal subsidies.