AFTER EIGHT YEARS of riding along with public transit ventures around the country, is the federal government about to pull the cord and get off for good? Call it a shift in emphasis, if you will, but be it buses or trains, the administration wants no further part of the tab for operating these systems in future years. As staff writer Douglas B. Feaver reported last week in a series on the state of public transportation, the gist of the administration's policy is that transit riders and their state and local governments should pay operating costs and curb or cut our plans for new and expanded rail systems.

So much for a policy created by the Nixon and Ford administrations -- not as a way to blow millions on transit toys for cities, but as a long-term investment in the renewal of central business districts. The latest blunt message from Arthur Teele, the new chief of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, is that since "the federal government has no theoretical or constitutional basis for being involved" in local transit operating subsidies, transit "has got to get off its knees and stop coming to the federal government for everything."

There is no question that federal aid for operating costs of public transit systems will be, and should be, reduced; at least Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis has recognized that an immediate elimination of all operating aid would shut down most of the major mass transit systems, and has proposed a gradual elimination of federal assistance between now and 1985. To make up the losses, transit systems will have to: 1) raise fares; 2) cut service; 3) increase state or local subsidies; 4) do all of the above, which is the most likely response.

The danger in this otherwise fine-sounding formula is, as Washington Metro General Manager (and former UMTA chief himself) Richard S. Page points out, "that public transit will be forced into the same cycle of raising fares, cutting service and losing riders that killed off the private transit systems." That cycle also can mean the return of the automobile in great numbers to cities -- which is that last thing any of them need.

No one seriously argues that transit managements couldn't stand to tighten up their budgets, examine their routes, consider ride-on and van-pool alternatives and review their collective bargaining agreements. But even if all federal subsidies for operating costs do end, federal support for the efficient development of rail and bus systems makes more financial since than delays in construction of fleet replacements, which can become enormously costly over the long run. Without the assistance of the federal government on this score, the urban regions of the country -- and their economies tied to transit for jobs and orderly land use -- will be staring at far worse financial and social upset.