THREE major transportation modes face potential Reagan administration budget cuts - long-distance rail, mass transit, and Interstate highways. If enacted, the cuts would seriously harm all three.
Involved are the basic philosophy of the federal government's role in providing funds to such programs, and the need to trim the nation's budget deficit. And, in the case of highways, disagreements over how much money Uncle Sam should provide for specific projects.
A long-distance train system, effective mass-transit systems, and a well-maintained and completed Interstate highway network are an investment in the nation. Over both short and long distances the United States is interdependent as never before. Many commuters travel an hour or more to work. For decades trucks have crisscrossed the country, carrying California fruit to New England tables and Massachusetts electronics to West Coast customers.
In recent years the national rail passenger network has shown vitality; in East and West Coast corridors it is a feasible alternative to airplane travel.
As part of its budget-cutting plan, the administration proposes ending the federal subsidy for Amtrak's long-distance passenger trains and for the operating costs of mass transit. Such proposals are likely to generate strong congressional opposition, and it is unclear how far the administration would be willing to push them.
But if they were to take effect, one result would likely be the end of long-distance trains in the United States for the foreseeable future, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor.
Although Amtrak has made substantial economies in recent years, the federal government provides half its funds. Amtrak has been able to decrease the subsidy , however - from $896 million in fiscal year 1981 to an estimated $684 million in the current fiscal year. But because of the size of the deficit, it is unlikely that private purchasers could be found for Amtrak lines.
Were long-distance rail passenger service to end, freight-carrying railroads and commuter rail services would have to pay considerably more for upkeep of rail lines and roadbeds; they now share that cost with Amtrak. In turn, this would jeopardize the future of some commuter rail and freight organizations.
Amtrak aside, commuters in many cities would be seriously affected if the federal government were to end its operating subsidies to mass transit. Many hard-pressed transit companies would have to raise additional funds locally, presumably by increasing fares, and at the risk of sending riders fleeing to other forms of transportation. The transit systems' alternative would be to trim service that in many communities is at a bare minimum.
In many states the Interstate system faces similar financial problems. Forty-three of the 50 states are nearly out of money to complete the relatively few unbuilt portions of the system, and to rebuild or resurface the many areas that have deteriorated severely.
Yet the two houses of Congress were not able to agree this year on bills to release $7.2 billion from the Highway Trust Fund for this construction and repair. Substantially at issue was whether projects in several states would receive federal funding and, if so, how much. Such disputes are generally worked out between the individual states and the Federal Highway Administration.
When Congress reconvenes next month it ought to reach agreement promptly on releasing highway funds. The nation's Interstates are deteriorating seriously, the money exists to repair some of them - and it should be provided.
Both Congress and the administration ought to think carefully about the kinds of rail and highway transportation systems they wish the United States to have. In this time of budget deficit, money is one important issue. At the same time it should be realized that these systems are a national asset; allowing them to go out of business, or to deteriorate even further, would be more expensive in the long run than providing funds today.