Tug of water over transit $$$

Bus or rail, commuters in American cities are moving to a greater reliance on mass transportation. Take Washington, D.C., for instance. A computer malfunction Tuesday morning shut down the Metrorail system for two hours, and forced about 100,000 commuters to take their own cars to work, or to crowd aboard buses. It was the first time in more than a year that a breakdown like this to the $7 million billion system occurred at rush hour.

After the usual flurry of public complaints and official explanations, the surprise seemed to be the city's realization of just how much it has grown to rely on the subway system since the first line opened in 1976. Everyday riders have been bred. The number of passengers has increased 30 percent in the past year alone.

Washington's Metro and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are two high-cost, fixed-rail systems that, in a sense, bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots of mass transit. Begun in the 1960s, they were the first since the long-ago undertakings of New York, Boston, Chicago, and other northern cities, but before ground was broken at Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

For the most part, the old, Northern cities have mass transit systems in place -- especially high-cost fixed-rail -- and the younger Southern and Western cities want it. The old systems also are in great need of money to repair or replace aging vehicles and stations. The younger ones may need even more money, however, to get their fixed-rail systems rolling because of current high labor and equipment costs. Transportation experts see a tug of war shaping up over funds.

Added to this is the philosophical split between the fixed-rail North and the bus-oriented South and West. Buses are more flexible and cheaper to buy, but they are less speedy than rail and ultimately may be more vulnerable because of their reliance on petroleum products.

"Two years ago, the money that should have gone to buses was diverted to rail ," says Nels Rasmussen of the bus-oreinted Sacramento (Calif.) Regional Transit District. "It's difficult for some of the smaller communities to get substantial resources for bus replacement, much less expansion."

Ted Lutz, chief of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), says he senses "some real tension" between cities that need money for rail modernization and those needing it for new starts.

"In the 1980s, we are going to see a confluence of needs," Mr. Lutz says. "The established systems, which are now realizing ridership growth, need to have their physical structure improved. The newer systems will need higher levels of support as they build. . . . And not everyone is talking about 'heavy rail' as the solution."

A major question is whether communities should receive federal money based on population or on the level of transit service. Federal support -- especially when ridership is up -- should be large enough to stimulate service, but not to "affect decisions by state and local authorities over their own productivity," Mr. Lutz says.

The solution to this "confluence of needs" may be simple and costly: increase the size of the pie for everyone.

The Carter administration March 6 unveiled a five-year plan for spending $29 billion on mass transit. The budget request is based on the assumption that Congress will dedicate some of the revenue from the oil windfall-profits tax to mass transit.

Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey is sponsoring a bill which would go the administration $4.7 billion better. The senator's bill would allow principle weapons for cutting energy waste," says Senator Williams, "then we need financial commitment."

At the same time, US Rep. James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey is sponsoring legislation authorizing $6.7 billion less than the administration has requested. The Williams bill is geared to older transit systems, the Howard bill to newer ones. Despite the budget-cutting demeanor in Congress, something within the Howard-to-Williams span is expected to emerge due to administration backing and the push for energy conservation within Congress.

Any of these proposals would benefit mass transit. The key, however, is congressional approval for channeling money out of the estimated $227.3 billion that the windfall profits tax is supposed to raise by 1991.

Mr. Lutz, who served as Washington, D.C., Metro director for three years prior to joining UMTA, says Tuesday's breakdown of Metro points to the change mass transit is causing in public thinking -- at least in the US capital.

"In New York, in Chicago, in a lot of cities," he says, "people know that mass transit is not just a 'nice thing' but an actual necessity. You can see that happening in Washington now. Congressmen, their staff people, federal workers, ride it. When it doesn't function just right, it wakes a lot of people up to it."

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