A RAILROAD INDUSTRY POSITION already is becoming clear even though the legislative fight over the federal highway program reauthorization isn't due until 1991.
Speakers at the annual American Railroad Conference here last week suggested tapping the federal highway trust fund to assist railroads if operators of the heaviest trucks can't be made to pay much higher taxes.The concept, rejected by motor carriers, is that the biggest and heaviest trucks do not pay their allocable share for the roads they consume. Because the rates they charge do not cover their actual cost of doing business, truckers in effect are subsidized. Motor carriers say they do pay their fair share of highway costs. They cite the heavy vehicle use fee and the 5-cent-a- gallon diesel fuel tax differential, on top of the taxes paid by operators of all other vehicles.
Ray Chambers, a veteran Washington lobbyist for railroads, said federal subsidization of the trucking industry is one of the principal causes for freight diversion from railroads to trucks. Yet, railroads believe that a huge increase in truck taxes probably is politically undoable.
Mr. Chambers advocates taking money from the highway trust fund and using it for railroad rehabilitation as an offset for the effective subsidy truckers receive from the fund.
Although economists shudder at the thought, it is politically axiomatic in this town that it often is easier to get two subsidies than to eliminate one.
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SUPPORT FOR RAIL SUBSIDIES paid by truckers came during the conference
from Darius W. Gaskins Jr., a visiting professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Mr. Gaskins told conferees that he is skeptical of, and reluctant to, support diversion of highway funds but he did.
Mr. Gaskins, a former president of Burlington Northern Railroad and still a consultant to that railroad, cited the elimination of the "gathering system" of railroad branch lines and the subsequent increase of heavy trucks on rural roads that weren't built to take that kind of traffic.
Short-line railroads, Mr. Gaskins said, should be encouraged as a way of preserving the gathering system. Rather than a direct rail subsidy, he advocates diverting some highway money to the states so they could use it for rural road or branch-line repairs.
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IT WAS A BULLY PULPIT, but a different preacher was in it.
Federal Railroad Administrator Gilbert Carmichael came in for some severe criticism at a breakfast meeting of the directors of the High Speed Rail Association at the Mayflower Hotel here last week. He recently journeyed to Europe to view efforts on the Continent to develop high-speed rail systems. Mr. Carmichael, who has infuriated motor carriers with his strong support for rail issues, is a full-time advocate of new technologies such as magnetic levitation for the U.S. railroad industry.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., had been invited to tell the high- speed rail group of his interest. To everyone's surprise, he launched into an attack on Mr. Carmichael, including use of some pejoratives not often heard in public Washington.
He suggested that Mr. Carmichael, who was not present, didn't know anything about high-speed rail. He questioned the administrator's credibility and said U.S. high-speed efforts should be carried out by American companies.
It should be noted that the Grumman Corp. is based on Long Island, N.Y., on Mr. Moynihan's turf. Grumman, which is having trouble winning new military contracts from the Pentagon, just might be a candidate to get involved in any high-speed rail effort mounted in this country.
Mr. Moynihan's attack on Mr. Carmichael was so harsh that several board members apologized to the administrator a bit later that morning when he made a scheduled appearance before the board. It was the first Mr. Carmichael knew of usurpation of his "bully pulpit."