WITH billions of dollars being tossed around like so much spare change, it's time for somebody to suggest a real stimulus package that could change the face of America.

Change was the dominant theme last year - yet we now seem to be getting a lot more of the same.

Americans want change because that's what has always made America the place to be - all those people who came here in the last 100 years and changed their lives, then changed the world. So what would real change look like?

With all the recent talk about the president's transportation initiatives, the U.S. should pick a major city and make it a public transportation mecca - a showcase for what a big city with effective public transportation would look like and how it would operate.

And why not Philadelphia?

The current model to promote public transit here is based on punishing drivers by making it as expensive and inconvenient to drive into Philadelphia as possible.

As with so much in this city, it's an idea that originated in New York. Like most New York ideas that migrate south, it doesn't work here. The doubling of parking-meter fares and the resulting large increases in garage rates have made Center City less attractive to shoppers and potential residents, not more.

So, let's think big. What would really promote Center City and the rest of the region? Free public transportation. Yes, free.

Travel anywhere on SEPTA for free. Can you imagine how many new recruits to our already extensive regional transportation system that would generate? And what a boost to the city's dying retail markets. A casino in Center City - how big an advantage over other casinos would it have with free transportation?

How about our cultural scene?

Free transportation to local museums, theaters, music - the list is endless for what could benefit from this investment. The disadvantages? Less pollution, less congestion, fewer drunken drivers, less noise - see where this is heading.

And this would put money in people's pockets. It's estimated that the average cost of car ownership and maintenance makes up 17 percent of most household budgets. That's more than $600 a month.

But, you say, there's no free lunch. Tell that to the AIG execs who were getting millions in bonuses after helping to create the financial tsunami we're in.

OK, let's look at the numbers.

How much would it cost? A lot less than the billions being thrown at Wall Street. In 2010, SEPTA expects to collect about $400 million in passenger revenue. Chump change in the new Washington, especially compared to the $1.1 billion it will spend. Not having to collect fares will certainly save a big chunk of change.

So let's upgrade the bus and rail lines. Let's get real security - effective transit police, with zero tolerance for misbehavior, and that includes loud music, graffiti, etc.

Let's spend $1 billion a year on Philadelphia's transportation system from 2010-2015. That's $6 billion. Let's make this investment in an effective regional system. Then let's see what happens. Make Philadelphia the nation's public-transit experiment.

Instead of spending billions to redo the South Street Bridge - scrap it. Build a walking and biking bridge. I don't know if anyone has noticed, but the Schuylkill Expressway runs a lot better without a South Street exit and entrance - they were death traps anyway.

ABIG piece of the "stimulus plan" seems to emphasize upgrading the country's highway infrastructure. Why spend billions on promoting an auto industry that is mostly foreign?

Why not spend that money on transforming one city - then another, then another? By 2025, we could have a new eco-friendly transportation grid that moves more people more economically than anywhere else in the world.

Remember when the U.S. was the most innovative, dynamic place in the world? It's time again.

Yes, let's think BIG - let's think about how to make the future we want, not just the future that's an inevitable consequence of the mistakes we've already made. Let's show the world the real shock and awe of America - its capacity to change.

Armen Pandola, Philadelphia