ONE OF THE more delicate matters of public policy to haunt all three branches of government is the question of what price society should pay to provide public transportation that can be used by disabled people. One quick answer from many of the leading organized groups of elderly and handicapped is "whatever it takes" -- stemming from an earnest belief that every effort should be made to make their daily living as much alike that of others as possible. Yet for all Americans, that begs many questions of hard economics, of what is practical and affordable.

Congress, the administration and the courts all have wrestled in recent years with the legal and philosophical implications involved. By law, by administrative regulation and by court opinion, the challenge of providing public transportation for the handicapped is now formally a federal government responisbility. But it remains now for Congress to determine how much to pay in meeting federal laws that should have been tempered to reflect the limits of what is possible -- and this is where the latest debate is taking place.

The House Public Works Committee has voted to permit local transit systems to set up services for the disabled instead of requiring that all new federally financed facilities be usable and that much of the old equipment be refitted. Alternative systems would have to be approved by the secretary of transportation and fares and hours of operation would have to be the same as those for regular service. The idea would be to save money; and since estimates for full compliance with current law have been estimated at anywhere between $6 billion and $20 billion, this proposal has obvious appeal. But to the groups of handicapped, there is a matter of dignity. They neither seek nor wish to accept "separate but equal" access to public transportation.

Hasty approval of the committee proposal in Congress would be just as unwise as a stubborn all-or-nothing stand by groups of the disabled. A protracted and bitter dispute could well end up with Congress repealing the entire 1973 law -- and leaving none of the hard-won civil rights of handicapped on the books. Far better, if far more difficult, would be negotiatons -- with great amounts of understanding, patience and compromise -- leading to a reasonable and financially practical timetable for change.