Some people admire Thomas Donohue, the larger-than-life president of American Trucking Associations. Others can't stand him. No one thinks he's boring.

In a lively, free-wheeling speech here last week, Mr. Donohue praised, cajoled, insulted and challenged almost everyone in sight - and showed why he elicits strong emotions.He compared Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to Machiavelli. He squared off with a lobbyist for one of the country's largest retailers. He extended an olive branch to the railroad industry, then threatened to support legislation to raise their business costs.

Mr. Donohue, speaking to the Transportation Table, a forum sponsored by The Journal of Commerce, began by saluting Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner for his new national transportation policy.

"What impressed me most is that he succeeded in putting transportation issues on the front pages of every newspaper in the country," he said. "I give Sam a great deal of credit for that."

But Mr. Donohue said the future of transportation does not depend on better highways or larger trust funds.

"The real question is, 'What is Richard Darman going to do?' " Mr. Donohue asked. "He gives Machiavelli a damn good name."

The trade association president said truckers "are willing to pay more money into the Highway Trust Fund if (the Bush administration) spends down what's already in it." That decision, he asserted, rests largely with Mr. Darman.

Mr. Donohue also said the trucking industry opposes toll collection on roads built with federal funds, a proposal mentioned in Mr. Skinner's policy.

"It's clear we can't pay for the roads twice," he said.

Mr. Donohue alternately praised and threatened railroads, an industry truckers have been battling for years.

"The bottom line is, we want to get into productive business (rela- tionships) with the railroads," he said.

Even so, he chastised railroads for working behind the scenes to raise truck taxes in statelegislatures. He also criticized the Association of American Railroads for attacking the trucking industry in its recent congressional testimony on highway spending legislation.

"The railroads have a problem with volume . . . but they're not going to pick up any volume doing that," he said.

If the railroads persist in trying to raise truck taxes, he warned, truckers might press for nationwide certification of railroad engineers, which is likely to be a costly, complicated procedure. Truck drivers currently are undergoing their own certification program.

He also said the trucking industry might ask that railroad grade crossings be maintained by the railroads and not with money from the Highway Trust Fund.

"There are a whole lot of interesting things fellows could get involved in," he said dryly.

Mr. Donohue, in a spirited question-and-answer session following his speech, refused to say what the trucking industry might demand from Congress next year if lawmakers raise fuel taxes.

Railroads are worried the trucking industry might push for nationwide use of twin 48-foot tractor-trailer combinations.

"I won't make a deal a year in advance . . . because then you make it 15 times over again," he said.

Mr. Donohue also dismissed recently introduced legislation that would deregulate trucking within the states. The bill is supported by many large shippers and some truckers but is opposed by his association.

"The bill, as it it is now, you can't three seconds (of attention) for it," he said.

That drew a concerned response from a representative of Procter & Gamble Co., which supports the bill. She said she might lobby Mr. Donohue's policy- making executive committee to change the ATA's position.

Mr. Donohue invited her to try, then explained the committee had 140 members.

"It would take a majority (to change our position)," he said, "so you would need 71 votes."