CUT THE RED TAPE

THE INTERSTATE COMMERCE COMMISSION should move swiftly to approve the application - before it since July - of CSX Corp. to acquire the $1.6 billion Sea-Land Corp. Further delay will cost the applicants money and in all likelihood create new problems.

CSX, which began with the merger of the old Chessie and Seaboard System railroads, is well on its way to becoming the first all-mode transportation conglomerate. It has acquired American Commercial Barge Lines and moved into the pipeline and trucking businesses. Approval of the Sea-Land acquisition would mark the first direct extension by CSX - or any other domestic surface carrier - into international ocean transport. Sea-Land, based in Menlo Park, N.J., operates a fleet of 57 oceangoing container vessels in the Far East/ Pacific, European/Atlantic, Mediterranean/Middle East and Latin American trades.The acquisitions, taken together, have put CSX into the forefront of moves to create full service transportation entities offering shippers a wide variety of intermodal options tailored - hopefully - to shippers' needs.

Importantly, CSX has worked out most of the controversies arising from the application to the satisfaction of other railroads, ship companies, ports and, most important, shippers. But the commission has yet to act and apparently won't for at least another month or so.

This is creating problems for Sea-Land and other transportation companies. United States Lines' recent decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy law protection and to quit the round-the-world and North Atlantic trades indicates just how competitive the containership industry has become. Investment and operating decisions, affecting present and future earnings, cannot be postponed. But such decisions can vary greatly depending on whether Sea-Land is to stand alone or be part of the $7.4 billion CSX holding company. The nebulous status in which Sea-Land finds itself puts it at a serious disadvantage to its competitors.

Congressional decisions also hinge on the outcome of the CSX application to acquire Sea-Land. For example, legislation re-establishing ship line subsidy programs must be drafted and reviewed before Congress gets down to business next month. The resolution of these issues will have a profound impact on the environment in which Sea-Land - and other carriers - operate, but no action is likely while the Sea-Land application remains in limbo.

Delay would make some sense if major areas of controversy - to be dealt with by the ICC or the courts - remained. But most of these seem to have been settled. The only remaining reason for delay appears to be the sheer time it takes ICC staffers to wade through all the paper.

Some way should be found to cut through this maze.

One possibility would be to issue an order indicating that the agency is leaning toward approval. This would give CSX something upon which to hang its hat while ICC staffers make sure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed. The agency has ample precedent to do this. Such a move would cut the confusion and help everyone in the industry to get to work.

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