Reagan's right turn for mass transit

Has the price of gasoline made you consider hanging up the car keys and taking the bus or subway to work? Have you checked the Amtrak schedule to see if traveling by train might cut the cost of this year's vacation?

Figure again. While these transportation options may hold bargains for many Americans, they will likely see fast and steady fare increases if President Reagan reshapes federal subsidy programs to his liking.

Some services could disappear without the current levels of government support.

The federal government in recent years has become a growing source of operating funds for the nation's mass transit systems, providing about 15 percent of transit revenues in 1979. But by 1985, the President wants to end such aid, the budget authority for which amounts to about $1.1 billion this year.

Capital grants to transit systems for new equipment and construction would be continued, but at a lower level under the Reagan proposals. Also, there would be a change of direction in how these funds are spent, with the federal government shifting support away from building new rail transit systems and toward improving existing public transportation services.

The Reagan administration also would like to reduce subsidies to Amtrak, the quasi-public corporation set up by Congress to operate the nation's intercity passenger railroads, and end funding of Conrail, which operates freight and commuter rail services in the Northeast.

Analysts size up the impact of these proposed cuts this way:

* For mass transit users, fares will rise sharply. The nation's public transit systems have a history of holding down fares to encourage ridership. However, in recent years this policy generally has been reversed. Ridership has expanded because of the higher cost of operating an automobile, and transit systems have been bolder about increasing fares.

The average regular fare for public transit increased about 19 percent in 1980. And most analysts agree that under the Reagan proposal, the rate of increase probably would be more rapid in the years ahead.

Despite the expected increases, many observers feel transit will retain its popularity.

"I don't think you will see any dramatic losses in ridership because the rising cost of gasoline will continue to make transit a good buy," asserts Ronald Kirby, director of transportation studies at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Also, transit service in the US could begin a back-to-basics movement. Reagan would slam the brakes on new rail transit systems, such as those being planned in Houston and Los Angeles. Priority would be given to improving and expanding existing systems, which for most cities means more bus service.

The only new types of services that analysts see under the budget reductions would be in unconventional forms of transit -- car- and van-pooling, subscription buses, jitneys, and shared-taxi services. It is reasoned that in trying to reduce costs, transit systems will encourage these alternatives provided by outside operators to avoid expanding conventional transit.

* Amtrak might be priced out of existence. The administration's budget proposal calls for Amtrak to recoup 80 percent of its operating costs through fares by 1985. The administration wants to reduce funds earmarked for fare subsidies in fiscal 1981 from $906 million to $881 million. By 1985, the fare subsidy request would be pared to $350 million.

"We can't raise our fares that much and remain competitive," says an Amtrak spokesman. Amtrak boosted ticket prices an average of 17 percent in 1980, and that was only to keep on track with its goal of earning half its operating costs by 1985. Steeper increases could send Amtrak patrons back to their cars or to other modes of transportation, the spokesman says.

Amtrak serves 24,000 route-miles in 44 states. But the Reagan budget plan plays down the importance of the system, noting it serves less than 1 percent of US intercity travel. The plan to force fares higher, which has a clear implication for the availability of Amtrak services, "will have virtually no negative effects on personal travel in the US," the Reagan budget document asserts.

Others disagree. Says Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers: "We need the rail alternative because automobile and air travel are being priced too high for many people."

* Conrail freight rates may be forced higher, and its sizable commuter services in the Northeast may be turned over to one or more new operating entities.

Reagan's proposal to terminate federal Conrail subsidies comes at a time when Congress already was expected to take a hard new look at ways to sort out the corporation's financial difficulties. It was set up in 1976 by Congress to operate freight and commuter services in the Northeast after several private railroads went bankrupt.

The legislation called for Conrail to be self-supporting by 1979, but it continues to rely on federal subsidies. Under the Reagan proposal it would receive $435 million in federal support for fiscal year 1981 and $150 million in 1982, then funding would cease.

Commuters in the Northeast rely heavily on Conrail, which operates about 1, 800 commuter trains daily. Many analysts feel an important step toward making Conrail self-sufficient would be to relieve it of operating these commuter services. The services might be picked up by the states where the trains run or by some new regional agency.

Regardless of who runs the commuter trains, they too will face the financial situation confronting other mass transit systems and be forced to depend on higher fares to survive in a period of reduced federal support, analysts agree.

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