Houston — Americans are learning to like mass transportation, at least compared with the alternative of increasingly expensive auto travel. That is the conclusion many transit experts draw from bus and rail diership numbers so far in 1980, which have continued to rise even over last year's surge in patronage. It appears the nation's transit operators have been able to hold on to the new traffic gained during the period of oil shortages and gaoline lines in 1979 as well as add new customers.
At a recent conference here of the American Public Transit Association (Oct. 5-8), operators of major urban mass transportation systems agreed the growth of ridership that began in the 1970s after two decades of decline shows every sign it will continue in the 1980s.
"I have no trouble at all anticipating a doubling of ridership in the next 10 to 15 years," says Jack R. Gilstrap, executive vice-president of the American Public Transit Association. Transit ridership in the US exceeded 8 billion in 1979 and is expected to increase 3 to 4 percent this year.
The problem, transit operators here concur, will be to accommodate that growing patronage in a political climate of increasing fiscal conservatism at the federal, state, and local levels. Transit systems in the US are dependent on government at all three levels for about 46 percent of their operating revenues.
And the dependence on government subsidy could increase with higher ridership because most of the new patrons come aboard during the morning and evening commuting hours. Transit operators must buy more buses and rail vehicles for these peak travel times, only to see them rack up greater losses the rest of the day.
The troubled financial picture has created a tug of war among transit operators over federal funds. Congress is considering major mass transportation legislation that would authorize a substantial increase in federal money for public transit over the next five years. The Senate has passed a major mass transportation bill, and the House is expected to consider similar legislation in the lame-duck session.
The controversy is over whether Congress should change the way funds for helping transit systems pay their operating costs are allocated. The Carter administration favors a new allocation system, as does the Senate bill.
The present formula is based on population density, and the new approach would allocate federal funds for cities with populations over 200,000 on the basis of how much public transportation service they now provide.
Large cities with established mass transit systems, like New York, Boston, and Chicago, would likely fare better under the new service-based allocation formula. Cities that are trying to build transit systems -- Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles -- might lose the money they need to expand public transportation.
"This new approach will let us out of any increase over the next five years," asserts Richard F. Davis, general manager of the Kansas City area transportation authority.
Mr. Davis says while there is some justification for rewarding the large urban transit systems for their high level of service, he worries that the new formula would hurt most those "cities that already have the most inefficient transportation systems in the country." He says automobile-dependent cities in the West and the South will be left with little inducement in the way of improved public transit to cut back automobile traffic.
Despite this controversy, the transit community is nearly unanimous in wanting major new legislation from this session of Congress. Sen. Harrison Williams (D) of New Jersey, sponsor of the Senate bill that authorizes $24 billion to mass transit over the next five years, warned that "the fragle congressional coalition which helped achieve this result is rapidly changing" and that transit funding, which has been growing faster than many other domestic programs in recent years, might not fare so well in Congress next year.