A minor legal skirmish over eliminating 60-cent paper transfers has escalated into a major battle between SEPTA and the city of Philadelphia - with the Federal Transit Administration caught in the middle.

After SEPTA's board of directors voted to eliminate transfers as of Aug. 1, the city convinced a judge to stop that from happening while he decides if it discriminates against minority and low-income riders by making them pay two full fares.

Early this week, city attorneys showed Common Pleas Judge Gary DiVito a letter that the FTA sent SEPTA, requiring it to analyze whether its fare increase would "have a disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority and low-income riders."

SEPTA General Manager Faye Moore said she "hit the roof and I'm still hanging from the chandeliers."

She fired off a "harsh" letter to FTA Administrator James S. Simpson, questioning the legality of his agency's "interference with SEPTA operations."

"I wanted to go on record with the federal government to let them know that they have effectively been used," Moore said yesterday.

"If you look carefully at the [FTA] letter, it was signed by someone lower in the food chain," she said. "It created a public perception that we ignored the law, that we were willing to violate individuals' civil rights."

Moore informed Simpson that SEPTA has a long history of complying with Title VI civil-rights regulations, as it did when it eliminated transfers after determining "that there was no adverse impact" on minorities.

Moore wrote it was "unfortunate that at least one member of your department chose to act rashly."

She said the FTA "looked into it and they went, 'Oops!' "

Simpson wrote back, expressing a "sincere apology" for the "mistake" and agreeing "it would appear that SEPTA has followed its established procedures" for complying with Title VI.

But City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz said yesterday that "in the city's super-sampling survey, 80 percent of the African-Americans said they use SEPTA, and 58 percent of those African-Americans were low income.

"So it was astounding," Diaz said, "when SEPTA's chief revenue officer, John McGee, testified that they had never done any impact analysis on racial minority and low-income riders before eliminating transfers.

"I have filed a complaint with the FTA bringing their attention to discrepancies between Mr. McGee's sworn testimony and Faye Moore's letter," Diaz said. "I asked the FTA to investigate."

Transfers remain in effect until DiVito reaches a decision. *