I would have thought that a letter to the editor published a year ago by Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner {"No Special Treatment for Metro," May 21, 1989} would have resulted in a history lesson on Washington-area transit from someone on his staff. Based on his latest foray into the subject {"Metro Doesn't Deserve Special Help From Congress," Close to Home, May 27}, no lesson was imparted. I will attempt to give it.

Some 35 years ago, the Washington area enjoyed a 65-mile streetcar system that was non-polluting and both convenient and comfortable. The transit system, which included buses, was chartered (by an act of Congress, of course) as Capital Transit. The franchise was privately owned and was fully capitalized and superbly maintained from farebox revenues.

In 1956, Congress, in a fit of pique (its members are known to have these fits occasionally) revoked the franchise of Capital Transit following a 45-day motormen's strike. A precondition for the new operator, D.C. Transit, was the removal of all streetcars and their tracks. This happened despite the objections of numerous citizens' groups -- remember, Washingtonians had no say in these matters.

While locals could not determine transit policy, they could decide what mode of transportation they would use. Rather than ride jolting buses with their noxious fumes, those who could opted for autos and the urban flight they enabled. As the '70s approached, Congress decided that gridlock and pollution in the Washington area (conditions that Congress precipitated in the first place) required a fix. In their largesse, legislators prescribed a "gold-plated" solution now known as Metrorail.

I say gold-plated because the "heavy rail" option is the most expensive to build and operate. It offers the least flexibility with respect to route relocation. This inflexibility occurs even when the route doesn't exist -- case in point: a proposed alternative routing of the Green Line east of Anacostia. With "light rail," both routes could have been built with the money saved from litigation and delay.

All heavy-rail feeder operations (bus, light rail, park and ride) require patrons to transfer, which discourages riders who don't want to be inconvenienced. The cost of Metro's rail-bus transfers is the second highest of any transit system in North America -- only New York is higher, and that may change when New York gets its own distance-based variant of our Farecard system.

Heavy rail is best relegated to very high-density urban settings where the cost of driving is high. New York City, Tokyo and London come to mind. Heavy rail is also a good candidate in settings where "transit egalitarianism" is in vogue. Toronto, Montreal and many European urban areas exemplify this trend. High gas taxes and downtown parking fees help to promote heavy rail. Washington does have high-priced gas, but the gridlock here must be considered too good to give up.

So to put things in perspective, Secretary Skinner, the people of Washington have had very little to say in selecting their public transportation. The almighty Congress taketh away and giveth. We had a 65-mile rail network that some would consider good. It was separated from automotive traffic and could have been expanded at much less cost than heavy rail. It could have evolved into a system without the need for intermodal transfers and the barriers to ridership these present.

Washington deserves to have have its original rail system back in place. Further, it should be fully funded up to the original 104 miles, since the dispersal of transit patrons was a consequence of congressional folly. And since the gold-plated approach was foisted upon us, we should expect some assistance in expanding Metro as well.

-- John C. Corbin is a transportation consultant.