Sometime next spring qualified elderly, handicapped and low-income residents of Northern Virginia will be given tickets or chits to pay for transportation to doctors' offices, recreation centers and even the grocery store.

The transportation vouchers "will be something like food stamps" or Arlington County's transit coupons for low-income residents, county budget director Mark Jinks said.

The experiment in paying the elderly, poor and handicapped to provide their own transportation--on Metro, taxicabs or the vans and cars of public and private agencies--is being partially funded by a recently announced $156,000 federal grant to the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission.

Next month, the commission will choose one or two localities in which to try the new transportation coupon system. Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties and Alexandria have said they are interested. It will take until next spring for the planning commission and localities to organize the voucher system, which has been tried in several U.S. cities with mixed results, planning commission spokesman Tom Brannan said.

A recent commission study of the present system where almost 50 local public and semipublic agencies in Northern Virginia operate close to 200 vans, buses and cars is a "chaotic, inefficient and expensive system," Brannan said.

It is not clear exactly how many Northern Virginia "transportation-impaired" or "mobility-impaired" residents there are, but some localities do have estimates of the number of people they transport.

Fairfax County spends about $1.25 million a year to provide about 250,000 trips a year--most of them in some 50 county-owned vehicles--for residents who need transportation assistance, said Glen Mellis, coordinator of human services transportation for the county.

He estimated 3,000 to 5,000 residents regularly ride county vehicles as part of programs of more than half a dozen county agencies. These programs include the Community Services Board TRIPS program, which carries the handicapped; the Department of Community Action, which contracts to provide transportation for low-income residents in southern Fairfax; and the county's Agency on Aging, which takes the needy elderly on shopping trips and to recreation centers.

"We're definitely not very efficient now," Mellis said. "We'd like to deliver increased service for less."

Arlington, the only place in the Washington region to experiment with a transportation voucher system, "created an almost unique program in the U.S." several years ago when it began selling half-price Metro transit passes to low-income county residents, a program that the county has continued and that now regularly helps about 700 residents, Jinks said.

The county began the transit subsidy to supplement Metro's low-cost tickets for the elderly and handicapped, Jinks said. The county also provides shopping transportation regularly to about 900 elderly residents under a Red Cross-operated program as well as transportation for medical appointments, child care and various training and recreation programs.

The county does not break down the transportation costs related to each of its programs, but Jinks agreed with the planning commission study that found the various transportation programs are inefficient.

"Human services transportation is one of the oldest of unsolved problems for localities . I think it's possible to let clients vote with their feet," choosing taxicabs, buses or private vans to get to appointments, "and it may very well be a money-saver," he said.

The $156,000 federal Urban Mass Transit Administration grant, "one of the last projects the federal government is going to pay for," said Mellis, will be matched by $39,000 in funds from the planning commission and localities that will participate in the experiment.

The voucher system in its experimental stage will supplement, not end, the existing city and county transportation programs, Brannan said. Details of how it will operate will be worked out this fall and winter, Brannan said.