A former transportation secretary defended his successor's national transportation policy, but said the jury is still out on what will happen to it next.

James H. Burnley IV, who preceded Samuel K. Skinner as head of the Department of Transportation, said Tuesday that Mr. Skinner "is trying to provide leadership (and) it's fair to ask if anyone is going to follow."Addressing a conference sponsored by the National Waterways Conference on the recently released transportation strategy, Mr. Burnley rejected the ''strained arguments" of critics of the document.

Those critics in industry and Congress have charged that it lacks boldness and simply asks state and local communities to take on a greater role in meeting the problems of transportation congestion and infrastructure.

One early critic of the policy, Richard Kiley, chairman of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, called it "all flash and no cash."

Mr. Burnley said the demands of the transportation sector "won't be met if the debate is simply who can be shrillest or loudest. The answer to what happens next is up to you and me."

He compared the situation to the 10-year debate between shipowners and shipbuilders over maritime policy: "I'm quite certain that if (they) continue, as they have, to toss hand grenades over the wall at each other, not only will that debate go nowhere, but it will be the death dance of the American maritime industry."

Mr. Burnley said the new policy is "well-situated as an example of the proper federal role . . . The federal role is not about funding every pet local project in the country."

He said Mr. Skinner "avoided the trap" of trying to fashion a "rigid one-size-fits-all policy."

Commenting on the question of the increased user fees proposed in the policy, Mr. Burnley said, "Whether you call it a fee or a tax, somebody is paying." The decision will be "getting the right people paying the right amount."

Other conference attendees dealt with questions concerning user fees and privatization of transportation services and fees.

Ralph L. Stanley, former administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration, said privatization will be the key to getting much of the transportation infrastructure construction needed.

The idea of trying to make government work to solve transportation problems "doesn't work; it hasn't and it won't."

Mr. Stanley, chairman of the Toll Road Corp. of Virginia, Leesburg, Va., said "people will pay for mobility if they know the money they pay will benefit them." His company plans to build a private toll road linking Leesburg and Dulles International Airport.

Charles F. Lehman, a consultant for American Commercial Barge Line Co., Jeffersonville, Ind., noted that if the national strategy is "simply pay as you go, I am afraid we will be outhustled, outsmarted, and outplayed by our world competitors."

John M. Meenan, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association, said "pay as you go" is a good idea, but it should not be used ''as an excuse to pick the passenger's pocket."

Fred L. Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said if there is truly a commitment to privatization and local user fees, then federal transportation taxes and fees should be eliminated. "The policy wants to have local communities pay and keep the current tax system; that's trying to ride the horse in both directions."

R. Erik Stromberg, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, said that from the public port perspective, privatization already is occurring. As to whether there are further opportunities for privatization, ''here we start wriggling," he said.

Public ports have an autonomy, yet "ultimately an accountability" about how waterfront property will be used, he explained.

Lack of significant capital investment and a reluctance to deal with a low rate of profit return are two factors that limit private sector involvement in public port operations, said Mr. Stromberg.

In addition, an efficient port system is in the national interest, he said.