Myra M. Socher has a unique vantage point from which to assess the condition of Washington's slashed, scarred and pockmarked streets.

She's a paramedic supervisor at George Washington University Hospital. About three days a week, she rides in an ambulance, straining to keep her balance as the axles and chassis tremble beneath her.

"Otherwise, you end up on top of the patients, which is not good protocol," said Socher, a Georgetown resident.

Block for block, the District's 1,020 miles of streets are the oldest, busiest and most beat-up of any in the metropolitan area.

Street maintenance is the most heavily criticized service; two-thirds of 1,505 residents interviewed for a Washington Post poll said the District government was doing a poor or not-so-good job of keeping the streets in good repair.

The problem is in every ward and on every major thoroughfare and extends to many of the city's 259 bridges, 18 of which are considered structurally deficient.

Showcase streets such as Constitution Avenue NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW are deteriorating in places, and people constantly complain about the potholes along South Capitol Street and New York Avenue NE, to name two of the worst. Connecticut Avenue NW south of Chevy Chase Circle is a series of nonstop bumps and slopes; the city has no immediate plans to fix it.

Eighteenth Street NW between E and L streets NW provides a flavor of what drivers are up against every day. It's a virtual minefield of potholes, sloping pavement and something called utility cuts. Those cuts are left when utility companies slice into the streets for underground work but fail to patch the street adequately afterward.

"The city can never quite seem to keep up with the beating these streets take," said Charles P. Warr, of Woodley Park.

District officials acknowledge many of the flaws in the street maintenance program. They blame the city's budget crisis, the age of the streets and dramatic increases in commuter and tourist traffic. They also say that streets are the most heavily used service, making people's feelings visceral.

"I'd be foolish to deny we have all the problems under complete control," said Gary K. Burch, the city's chief highway engineer. "But there are limits we must work within."

Money, for one. Burch's department has received an average of $60 million a year since 1979 for repaving and rebuilding an average of 24 miles of streets. But the city's goal is to repave and resurface at least 40 miles of streets annually -- a goal that has been met twice in the past 11 years.

Moreover, the District budgets about $5 million a year to purchase asphalt for street repairs such as potholes. The amount is so paltry, officials say, that two-thirds of the budget is spent in the winter and spring on temporary pothole patches. By summer, there's not enough money for more permanent mending that would reduce people's gripes.

"You notice it all the time," said Louise A. Curran, of Foxhall. "The truck comes and all they do is put in more asphalt. It's a quick job."

Doris Johnson, of the 1300 block of Holbrook NE, says her street is nothing but patched holes. City crews come and go to mend them, but after a hard rain the asphalt pops out again, she said.

City engineer Burch said, "It would be much better and probably cheaper in the long run to do more permanent repair and do them as soon as possible."

Mayor Marion Barry agrees there are problems with the city's streets, but says that District residents would be far less critical if they were aware of the "atrocious" condition of streets in New York, Chicago, Boston and other major cities.

"If you look at our major arteries, if you look at Wisconsin Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue or Georgia Avenue or Constitution, all the major arteries are in pretty good shape," he said during a recent interview. "You very rarely find most of our major arteries pocked with potholes."

"I think people's contacts with the streets are much more frequent" than with other city services, he added, in explaining negative attitudes about street maintenance. "I think it's the frequency of the contact {that contributes to} the perception that there are potholes everywhere and the streets are dirty. They look for potholes" because the news media frequently report about them. The Not-So-Hot Line?

Barry's administration set up a pothole hot line in 1984, promising the holes would be fixed within 72 hours after being reported. Except in busy months, the city says, it generally meets that goal, though officials don't keep precise records. Some residents are skeptical.

"You're lucky if you get them fixed in 72 days," said George A. Boyd, of the Trinidad area of Northeast.

A reporter called the hot line on May 9 to report potholes in the westbound E Street NW tunnel. It took more than two weeks and three phone calls to get them repaired. City officials could not explain the delay.

An even greater problem is utility cuts. In what amounts to continuous open heart surgery on streets, the city issues an average of 900 permits a month to utilities for cuts that generally are about 5 feet by 5 feet but sometimes slice across the entire street.

On any given day, Potomac Electric Power Co. has 11 crews underground. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone, in addition to its regular work, is installing 1,100 miles of cable for District Cablevision. Public works officials cut into their own streets for water and sewer repair and a new traffic management system.

The utility makes a temporary patch until the city makes a permanent repair, but some are so shabbily done and take so long to be corrected that they pose hazards to pedestrians and drivers. City inspectors don't have authority to issue citations.

"It isn't easy or cheap to do it right, and most utility companies want to do it cheaply," said Carlton C. Robinson, executive vice president of the Highway Users Federation, a nonprofit business group of about 400 companies involved in transportation nationally. "If a city isn't diligent, it gets had. This city is getting had."

Other cities have the same problem as Washington but are much tougher. San Francisco, for example, charges the companies to repair defective trenches, allows inspectors to fine violators and bases its permit fees on the size of the trench to discourage large cuts.

Burch, acknowledging that utilities spend as little as possible for temporary repair, said the city probably should be more hard-nosed but admitted it would be difficult because the city historically has cooperated with utilities. Many Contributing Causes

It isn't all the city's fault. Metro is tearing up streets to build the Green Line subway, and city officials say the agency still refuses to spend $2 million to fix part of Seventh Street NW near the Mall where it built the Yellow Line. Some bad streets are the responsibility of other agencies.

Age is another factor over which the city has no control. More than half of the 259 bridges maintained by the District were built between 1956 and 1970, and repairs are coming due all at once. The city needs to rebuild about six bridges a year but has been averaging only two annually since 1979.

Years of spreading snow- and ice-melting chemicals contribute to the erosion of bridges too; 18 of the District's bridges are considered structurally deficient, though not life-threatening.

Traffic, particularly heavy trucks heading to and from downtown construction sites, also wear down the streets. Since 1963, traffic from Virginia and Maryland has jumped 300 percent.

Even before the District's soaring homicide rate and drug epidemic began draining away money from many city services, street maintenance programs were getting slighted. In the 1970s, much of the available capital budget went to Metrorail construction.

Only 3 percent of the District's operating budget is spent on all public works activities, and about 15 percent of the capital budget goes to transportation. City officials expect those numbers to drop as the budget crisis mounts. The number of street maintenance employees has dropped from about 100 to 70 in the past five years.

"There's no state, county or city in the country that doesn't say it needs more money, but some do a hell of a lot better job with less money than the District," said Gerald Donaldson, an auto safety expert associated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Nevertheless, the District has few options to raise more money. The city can't impose tolls or raise money from private sources, for example, and its ability to borrow money is limited.

As money for street repair becomes more scarce, competition has intensified. In some neighborhoods, there's a perception the city favors commuters and wealthy areas such as Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park.

"There's no advantage to having a black mayor delivering to his black constituents," said Robert I. Artisst, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission activist and a candidate for D.C. Council who lives in the Brookland area of Northeast. "We in Ward 5 support Barry, and yet Ward 3 gets better services for their wants and needs."

City officials say the city does indeed pay more attention to heavily traveled routes -- those used by commuters as well as residents. But records show the city will complete more work this year in Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River, than in Ward 3. The records also show the city divvies up street repair money fairly evenly.

Not everyone is critical. Snow removal has improved since the back-to-back storms of 1987 when Barry was out of town. Many people compliment the recent renovation of K Street NW between 16th and 21st streets.

Sometimes the city can't win for losing, as when people steam about the inconvenience caused by constant construction work -- the same work that people insist is needed.

"I think it's a case of, 'Is the glass half full or half empty?' " said Tara Hamilton, the city's public works spokeswoman. "We'll never say it's full and it never will be. It's a fact of life that our streets are a measure of age and volume. We're faced with dealing with the hand that was dealt us."

This list, compiled by the Department of Public Works, identifies the worst stretches of road in the city's eight wards. Some are being repaired; others are slated for work in the next three years.

Ward 1 -- Georgia Avenue between Euclid and Irving streets NW.

Ward 2 -- Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

Ward 3 -- Nebraska Avenue NW west of Ward Circle.

Ward 4 -- Kennedy Street between First and Ninth streets NW.

Ward 5 -- South Dakota Avenue between Taylor Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE.

Ward 6 -- Anacostia Freeway near Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Ward 7 -- Benning Road between C and H streets SE.

Ward 8 -- Suitland Parkway between South Capitol Street and Pomeroy Road SE and Pomeroy Road and the city line.