Warsaw's plan for a subway leaves many out in cold

Homes . . . or a subway?

Which should come first? people here are asking. Outside officialdom, not many seem in doubt.

This city has signed an agreement with the Soviets, a 12-year plan for an underground transit system. Meanwhile, some 2 million Poles will have to wait almost as long for a modest apartment.

The subway line is certainly needed to ease the capital's massive and mushrooming traffic problems. Surface transport is choked, and commuting distances growing.

The Soviet Union is to provide the blueprints and some of the tunneling equipment for the 14.5-mile track for free. It will supply the rest of the equipment, plus other installations and rolling stock, on credit repayable between now and the 1990s.

But the 2 million Poles who have been on waiting lists for housing for several years are questioning the authorities' priorities. Many may wait another seven years for new housing.

Their misgivings stem from:

* The steady falling off in the pace of building: 280,000 flats in 1978 but only 180,000 in 1981.

* The example of the ambitious investments of the 1970s. All over Poland there are reminders such as the costly Ursus tractor plant, a giant complex that has yet to be completed. Warsaw's skyscrapers and airline hotel complex, national motorways, and other utilities remain unfinished.

* The decline in the construction industry. Beset by inefficiency, the industry has a weak technical infrastructure, unemployment problems, and low quality performance.

Automobiles - the symbol of the ''success'' gimmickry of the spendthrift Gierek years - have fallen in the list of Polish priorities. Today housing comes first - even for the younger generation, as martial law continues to curtail freedom of movement.

Poland is the biggest of the East-bloc states after the Soviet Union. Yet it lags behind all the others in housing and most major social sectors.

Its building shortage imposes a three-shift system in urban schools, which casts doubt on the current promises of smaller classes as part of a better deal for teachers.

''Big is the enemy of the small,'' said Warsaw's Evening Express in a skeptical note on the likely spiraling costs of the subway and popular fear that it will join other grand (and largely unfinished) city projects in draining off resources from housing.

The time plan for the underground is 1983-95. The minimum housing need now is 2.3 million flats.

Some of the most justifiable complaints come from key industrial areas. Silesia, whose mining and metallurgy put it at the top of the heap, is called Poland's ''golden apple.'' But it is the least-developed region in terms of construction, transport (3 million commuters daily), and environment.

Despite its energy wealth, Silesia has only one major power plant. Housing developments have gone up without schools, kindergartens, clinics, or even paved sidewalks.

''People in Silesia,'' said the regional governor, Gen. Roman Paszkowski recently, ''live with a permanent sense of injustice, aware that they gave so much to Poland and so far got nothing in return.''

In a ''first things first'' effort, the local authorities aim to complete 59, 000 flats left unfinished in 1981, then bind contractors to completion on time of this year's programs and next, with penalties for default.

Katowice has an ''urgent'' waiting list for 95,000 flats by 1985. Present figures envisage only 78,000. Even this is in doubt because of diminished construction resources.

In a U-turn on orthodox communist thinking and practice, Silesia has concluded that it must encourage do-it-yourself financing. It is promoting the construction of single-family houses for miners and young couples through cooperatives. Some 24,000 lots have been accumulated.

''These will not be houses for Croesus,'' General Paszkowski says, ''but they'll certainly be a deal better than what so many people have got so far.''

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