NEIL GOLDSCHMIDT, the new transportation secretary, has done a good thing in urging the White House to name Theodore C. Lutz, the former general manager of Metro, head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration. Mr. Lutz is eminently qualified for the job -- which will be a big one; he knows the federal programs and processes from both inside and out.

The mass-transit challenges facing Mr. Goldschmidt and -- if all goes well -- Mr. Lutz are essentially problems of sudden popularity. For instance, large and small cities throughout the country are struggling to get more buses to meet the surging public demand for transit services. But only two American companies are producing buses these days, and the current system of city-by-city orders, spurred by the erratic arrival of federal aid, has helped make the situation somewhat chaotic. The federal government probably cannot solve this problem, but an innovative UMTA manager such as Mr. Lutz could make a number of useful improvements in procurement and grant policies. The new team at DOT would also be in a good position to push Congress to resolve, finally, the immensely complicated problem of providing mass-transit service for the handicapped -- a dilemma that helped to snarl bus procurement during Brock Adams' tenure at DOT.

An even larger challenge, of course, is money and where to get it. The White House may have recognized the need for a far greater, long-term federal investment in mass transit, but so far it has insisted on getting those billions from the windfall profits tax, whose future is so clouded on Capitol Hill. The new secretary and UMTA administrator will thus have to devote considerable time and skill to legislative negotiations -- and if the windfall-profits-tax approach does not succeed, will have to take the lead in developing alternate methods of providing stable mass-transit aid. This is an area in which Mr. Lutz's experience and skill could be especially valuable.

Beyond such immediate problems are the longer-term ones that energy troubles have emphasized: reshaping large parts of the nation's transportation and growth patterns to relieve metropolitan Americans' dependence on private cars and promote more efficient use of mass transit.