A decision by a U.S. appeals court last week that all new public buses must come equipped with wheelchair lifts has been hailed as a victory for the handicapped. That may be true, but it also is another case of federal courts taking away the powers of local government.

The 2-1 verdict by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not only decided a case involving the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, but the justices said their decision applies nationwide.The order will impact the Utah Transit Authority as well as others, even though the UTA already is purchasing some wheelchair-equipped buses.

U.S. Transportation Department regulations allowed local public transit systems to have wheelchair buses or the option of offering alternative service for the disabled. The UTA provides both.

But the court decision says that from now on all buses purchased must be wheelchair-equipped even though an alternative service is provided. In UTA's case, the alternative, known as Flextran, provides curb-to-curb service for more than 300 handicapped persons a day. The wheelchair buses serve only about 10 people a day.

Most handicapped users of UTA clearly prefer the Flextran system. It gives doorstep delivery while taking the bus requires getting to the bus stop, a not-always easy task for someone in a wheelchair, particularly in winter.

Local governments or local transit authorities should be sensitive to the needs of the handicapped, but some attention needs to be paid to costs and the right to seek alternatives.

Ordering all buses to be equipped in a certain way for the use of a minuscule number of passengers - at a cost of perhaps millions of dollars to local entities - may not make financial sense in some cases. There ought to be other options.

The UTA still must find out if the appeals court verdict applies to 40 buses it has ordered but not yet received. If it does, the extra cost of lifts will mean UTA can buy only 36 buses, even though all 40 are badly needed.

In addition, lifts on new buses and the significant maintenance problem posed by such devices could eventually cost UTA an extra $4 million a year. Does this makes sense for 10 riders a day?

The dissenting judge in the verdict put his finger on the problem, declaring that the impact will be considerable throughout the country and will interfere with local decisionmaking authority. "The court is overreaching," he said. Exactly.