TO the family riding on an antique coach pulled by an authentic steam locomotive or watching a roundhouse and rail yard being rebuilt, a visit to this rapidly developing new unit in the National Park System is an entertaining step back into early 20th-century railroading. To the Scranton, Pa., business community, it is a tourist bonanza. But to some expert historians, it is an insignificant collection of old locomotives and rolling stock in an irrelevant setting. To many officials and rangers in the National Park Service, Steamtown National Historic Site is a case of misplaced priorities devouring $70 million of the taxpayers' money in development costs that might otherwise go to financially strapped national parks. Steamtown also portends, when completed in 1994, a budgetary drain on the Park Service of at least $6 million a year for operating costs.
Whatever its true merits, Steamtown finds itself being pointed to as the most expensive example of a trend now referred to as ``park barrel'' politics. A number of members of Congress have used their influence to pass legislation creating and funding new parks that have questionable significance beyond their own state or district.
The local foundation that brought the vintage rail collection from Vermont to Scranton, Pa., was about to go into bankruptcy in 1986 when Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R) of Pennsylvania came to the rescue. As second-ranking minority member of the House appropriations subcommittee dealing with national parks, Mr. McDade managed to insert into the 1987 budget act a provision to establish Steamtown as a national park unit, with a $20 million authorization and an immediate appropriation of $8 million.
Advocates for Steamtown claim that, when completed, it will be the only railroad museum in the world on a working main line with a restored and operating roundhouse and offering visitors a satisfying taste of the American steam railroading era. Even though construction of the roundhouse and restoration of the locomotives have barely begun, Steamtown already offers 58-mile excursions each weekend from Memorial Day through October on the old Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western route that once ran from Hobok en, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y.
Congressional selection of new park units to benefit the provincial interests of individual members is not new, but has been on the rise since the Reagan administration prohibited the Park Service from making its own proposals for additions to the system. In the 1991 budget, members of Congress succeeded in ``adding on'' $18 million for studies or construction of nine new parks not sought by the Park Service.
* An additional $13 million of planning and construction money for the American Industrial Heritage Project, an economic development program for nine southwestern Pennsylvania counties represented by Democrat John P. Murtha, who happens to be the second-ranking majority member of the House subcommittee dealing with national park appropriations.
* A $4.5 million project of West Virginia's Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) to rehabilitate a decaying but once-opulent movie palace in Huntington, W. Va.
* A proposal by Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas for $125,000 to determine the feasibility of designating a Kansas reservoir, Wilson Lake, as a National Recreation Area.