The verdict is still out, but it looks like a small commuter line will win a four year fight with the Interstate Commerce Commission.

But Chaim Lunger, a 29-year-old Hassidic Jew trying to start his own little bus company, doesn't have much reason to celebrate. He has had a long and frustrating fight with the intricate machinery that powers the ICC decision making apparatus.

The circumstances of this case are admittedly unusual. It all began in the early 1970s when a group of Orthodox Jews moved from Brooklyn and lower Manhattan to this quiet, tree-lined hamlet 22 miles to the north.

They wanted to escape the hassles of city life.

The various congregations - some 32 of them - that have moved here have come in such a steady stream that they now make up more than half of the 7,000 residents.

Most of the working-age residents, though, still toil in the New York City neighborhoods they moved from. And although they left New York to escape the city and its problems, they never imagined the new problems they would face.

Like the Interstate Commerce Commission, for example which has spent two and a half years trying to decide just what kind of category the Monsey Jews fit into.

The problem arose because the extremely religious commuters have very specific and unusual needs that must be met during their travel to and from work. Their daily religious practices include the recitation of prayers on the bus in the morning and evening hours which coincide with the commuting times, and the requirement that men and women sit separately, avoiding "unsanctioned physical contact."

And, they are not allowed to travel on the Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends 24 hours later.

Public transportation in the area always has been sparse and could not, or would not, provide the kind of service that would accomodate the special considerations. So about six years ago, 15 members of one congregation got together and bought a school bus to take them back and forth from work.

As the community grew, so did the bus service. First one, then two large, used General Motors Corp. bus coaches were purchased from a New Jersey bus company, and Chaim Lunger decided it was time to go into business for himself.

As a child, Lunger had plenty of opportunity to tinker with cars and trucks. His father owned a used-car lot and by the time Chaim was in secondary school, friends would call him out of classes to help them get their cars moving.

With the blessing of his congregation, which also put up the financing. Lunger formed the Monsey Transportation Co. to serve all the congregations of Monsey.

In just three years, Lunger brought his fledging firm to the point where it was carrying between 70 and 100 passengers a day.

In early 1975, Lunger applied for an ICC license to operate a charter bus line, he needed federal approval because his route took him over state lines into New Jersey.

Lunger had been stopped earlier by a Port Authority patrolamn at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, which is under the Hudson River. He was driving in the newly formed express lane set up for buses.

"I explained to the man that I was driving a bus," Lunger said, laughing. But he told me that I could not use the express lane without an ICC permit saying I was a bus. I thought he was kidding.

Although he already had applied for such a permit, it was to take more than a year before any action would be taken by the ICC. and during that year Lunger's bus had to sit for an extra half hour in rush-hour traffic with the 50 riders watching other buses pass them in the express lane.

"I lost several riders during that time," Lunger remembers.

But that was only the beginning of a series of legal snafus that continue to this day, most of the product of its much about what label to put on the Monsey Transportation Co. and its unusual clientele.

The Port Authority patrolman who stopped Lunger in the express lane was only the tip of the iceberg.

"That was unbelievable," said Ron Greenwals, one of Monsey Transportation's regular riders. "Here we were in the middle of the gasoline crisis, with an express lane that was created to inspire people to take public transportation, and they stop a busload of 53 people to tell them they are not on a bus. What are they afraid of?"

Greenwald has some familiarity with the bureaucratic jumble. He has been a special consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and once worked for the Committee to Re-elect President Nixon ("I handled the Jewish vote in 13 states"). Consequently, he had been chosen as an informal spokesman for the Jews at many of the commission hearings and meetings. He also made several phone calls to congressmen and others in search of help in finding a way out of the bureaucratic maze.

When Monsey did go before the ICC with the request, several other existing bus lines filed protests.

"We were worried about precedent," said Samuel Zinder, attorney for Hudson Transit Lines of New Jersey, one of the protesters. "If they give this group the right to be a common carrier, that means they can start running a regular bus service. Then tommorrow, the next group to get a bus line will be the Indians, then after that the Hispanies, then on and on."

Monsey and the other lines came to an agreement heading off the potential conflict. Monsey sought a permit as a contract carrier - a special category for a bus line that services one specific group with a special need-which meant the line was not authorized, however, to pick up the general public. In exchange, the other lines agreed to drop their protests.

That plan seemed reasonable to the ICC Administrative Law judge hearing the case. He granted Monsey a contract carrier permit in April 1976, and Chaim Lunger was finally able to use the express lane. Everybody was happy.

Until July 1976, that is.

At that time, ICC Review Board 2 stayed the order of the judge, and instead amended it to give Monsey Transportation a common carrier status - even though it didn't want it.

The board said that Monsey could not qualify for contract status because that service is granted only to carriers that serve "a limited number of persons." Monsey, the board said, would be serving too many people. But the board did not say how many was too many. Neither does the law.

While being a common carrier has its advantages - the bus can pick up anyone on the street and a whole new area of charter type sources of revenue open up - there were also drawbacks.

The other interested bus lines immediately filed protests and petitions to be heard. And Monsey would have problems accomodating outside riders on a bus where all the men an dwomen had to sit apart. It would be discriminatory to force an outsider to conform to their religious standard.

"We didn't want to be a common carrier, the other bus lines certainly didn't want us to be a common carrier, and the ICC judge didn't want us to be a common carrier," says Monsey Transportation's attorney, Harvey Strelzin.

It was back to the courts after the Review Board decision, with the ICC having to defent its decision on the bus line's status before the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 2nd Circuit.

Last month, the court reversed the ICC review board ruling, stating that the decision to make Monsey a common carrier when no one asked that it be a common carrier "represents a manifest failure to apply the commission's own rule of decision in evaluating a familiar and well recognized type of contract carrior application."

The court criticised the review board for trying to set an arbitray numerical cutoff to the words "limited number of persons." Instead, the court ruled the ICC should have considered all the Monsey Jews as one specialized class.

"(If) the Congress meant to empower the commission to fix a simple numerical limit . . . the Congress could itself easily have imposed a numerical limit (when it passed the respective law n 1957)," the court said.

Hence the entire case has been remanded to the ICC again. According to sources in the ICC, the matter is being reviewed once more, and there is no decision yet on whether to appeal the court ruling.

"The ICC ought to help the people for a chance," said Monsey rider Greenwald. "All they do is protect the people in business already. I get angry when something like this happens.

"For a whole year, we had to waste half an hour every day by not going in the express lane because they wouldn't even schedule a hearing to get us a certificate," he says.