After five years of unsuccessful attempts to end federal subsidies to urban mass transit, the Reagan administration has come up with a "concept paper" for fiscal year 1987 that would give large urban areas the carrot of fiscal flexibility and then smack them upside the head with significantly reduced money. If Congress buys this one, all the donkeys aren't pulling carts.
The proposal combines federal aid to highways and mass transit in a single block grant. Local governments like block grants because they have only general spending requirements rather than specific ones. In other words, you just get money vaguely designated for mass transit, for instance. Nobody requires you to spend it on rolling stock or new rights-of-way.
Proposed grants would permit federal aid money to be spent for any highway or mass transit capital improvement project.
But the amount of money proposed for mass transit for 1987 is 40 percent less than than the $4.1 billion budgeted for 1985. It's less than this year's budgeted $3.7 billion. That means there would have to be either massive cuts in mass transit funding or in the $12.8 billion authorized for highways. Guess which matters most for big cities like Philadelphia. Guess which choice big cities that have problems raising enough cash to do either job would rather not make.
Since Congress wouldn't pass debilitating transit cuts, this Reaganese end run was created to entice local governments to put themselves in the terrible position of letting either their highways or their mass transit systems slip into disrepair. Out where the spaces are wide open and the people vote Republican, the choice is easy; there isn't any mass transit.
DOT bureaucrats are calling the measure a return of control to local governments. But it's really nothing more subtle than an attack on the mass transit systems that provide the lifebood of the big cities of the Northeast. It's also a handy way to leave local officials holding the bag instead of the federal government.
Pretty neat trick, if you can get away with it. Offer a dried-up carrot, then expect the donkey to hit himself in the head when there's not enough carrot to go around.
The only problem is that the wagon won't get pulled. But no one in the White House - especially the guys with the fancy chauffeured black limos - seems to care.
TODAY IN SOUTH AFRICA
Two people were killed by the authorities in South Africa over the weekend. More than 1,000 people were killed last year. The death count for this year is 17.