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Conservative political headwinds could slow US transit

The road has suddenly turned bumpy for expanding federal funding of mass transit in the United States, a goal sought by the Carter administration and one that appeared to have wide support in Congress just a matter of weeks ago.

The election of Ronald Reagan and a conservative shift in the legislature has apparently made the current lame-duck session of Congress less amenable to costly, new mass transit legislation, say knowledgeable observers in Washington. "What looked like a sure thing before the Nov. 4 election is now very debatable. The issue has become much more partisan," says an aide to one senator.

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Also, a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) raises questions about the overall wisdom of the new transit funding package proposed by the Carter administration.

According to this report, "GAO is concerned that the decision to support transit expansion is being unduly influenced by the energy situation and the availability of windfall profits tax revenues." Also it says that "not enough consideration has been given to potentially adverse impacts of transit expansion on transit operating costs, deficits, and subsidies."

The Senate has already passed a bill authorizing $24.7 billion in mass transit funding through fiscal year 1985, slightly less than the amount requested by the Carter administration. A House version of the bill, not yet passed, would authorize slightly more than the Senate version. Existing law allows for mass transit funding through 1983, but at a substantially lower level than what is being proposed.

One way the election of Mr. Reagan clouds the issue is by raising doubts about the future of the windfall profits tax, which is the new source of federal revenues that would pay for higher spending on mass transit. Reagan criticized the tax during the campaign, and the Republican Party platform calls for repealing certain portions of the tax, a move that would reduce its revenues.

In addition to the overall cost of a new transit program, there are several other controversial issues that any new legislation must address.

Federal requirements that transit systems be made accessible to the handicapped are under attack from transit operators who want more local autonomy. Operators claim fitting conventional bus and rail systems to the needs of the handicapped is too expensive, and they can often achieve the same goal through more specialized "paratransit" services -- vans and taxis -- at a lower cost.

There are proposals to change the federal funding formula for mass transit to one more geared to the service provided, which would favor cities with large transit systems like Boston, Chicago, and New York. Also, there is debate over whether Congress should strengthen the "buy American" provision that now allows federal grants only for equipment that is at least 51 percent American-made. Some legislators would like to raise the requirement to 70 percent.

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All this comes on the heels of a surge in transit ridership in the United States since the gasoline shortages of 1979, and mounting financial problems for many transit systems.

For example, in 1979 the nation's public transit systems recovered only 44 percent of their operating costs from fare collections, down sharply from the 50 percent recovery rate in 1978. Federal, state, and local government subsidies provide the balance of operating revenues.

Indeed, it is the specter of mounting subsidy requirements that the GAO report warns against. Noting that the Carter administration has urged an increase in transit funding in order to expand the capacity of bus and rail systems, the GAO says that without other changes this may only worsen the deficits. This is because transit ridership increases tend to come during the peak commuting periods when many bus and rail systems are already packed. Adding buses and rail cars for the peak adds to the deficit because these vehicles then run empty or sit idle the rest of the day.

The GAO report suggests that there are other ways of increasing transit commuting besides expanding the physical capacity of transportation systems. The report recommends new initiatives to increase the use of staggered work hours, higher transit fares during the peak communiting periods, more incentives to transit commuting like exclusive bus lanes, and more disincentives to driving alone such as higher highway tolls and higher parking fees for private cars.

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