The Federal Maritime Commission re-routed the problem of overloaded cargo containers on America's highways to Congress' driveway.

The four commissioners backed away Tuesday from the chance to impose a regulatory solution to resolve the overweight container issue when they unanimously denied two petitions that took different approaches to the problem.They said even though the agency had authority to act under shipping law, ''neither petition provides an appropriate basis for action."

Kenneth E. Siegel, associate general counsel for American Trucking Associations, which sought commission action, said the agency "shirked its responsibility. They want to sit back and watch, even though they are the only agency with authority at this time to solve the problem."

He said the issue will next be aired later this month when a House committee begins hearings.

The problem is an economic, infrastructure and safety one. A recent Federal Highway Administration study, which prompted the petitions, estimated that as many as one-third of intermodal container shipments exceed federal highway weight limits. Such overloadedcontainers create braking problems for truckers and can damage roadways.

One of the petitions called for national maximum container weight standards, while the other seeks a ban on flat-rate incentives, known as per- container rates, that allegedly encourage overloading of containers. Both were filed last year by the ATA and ocean carrier conferences.

Mr. Siegel said the trucker amounts to an innocent bystander because shippers and ocean carriers that know how much a container weighs do not provide that information to truckers.

Yet truckers are the ones subject to fines and unsafe driving conditions when they haul an overweight container, he said.

He noted that per-container rates encourage overloading because the shipper pays the same box rate "for a 120,000-pound container as for a 40,000-pound container."

Shippers, on the other hand, have questioned both the need for additional federal regulation and the commission's jurisdiction.

James L. Tanner, president of Tanner Lumber Co., Elkins, W.Va., said the suggestion to eliminate per-container rates "is only a guise in an attempt to increase freight charges on forest products."

James J. Carey, acting chairman of the commission, said "no matter what we do, we would end up complying with some state laws and not complying with others. . . . I don't see these petitions ending up resolving the problem."

Francis Ivancie, commissioner, said, "I think it's the role of Congress to sort it out. If we get into the act at this stage, it will only compound the problem."

Rob Quartel, a third member, took the position that "If you strip away the rhetoric, it's fundamentally a highway issue."

William Hathaway, commissioner, added: "A number of agencies could have jurisdiction," including the FMC. He was curious about the states' role in the issue.

Carol Neustadt, an attorney in the commission's office of general counsel, said: "Certainly states have authority to set their own weight limits. If the

commission acted, much of that authority would be pre-empted."

She said the petitions and the Federal Highway Administration study are flawed. She noted, for example, that the study covers only foreign commerce and contains no comparison with domestic container movements.

A national maximum container weight standard would include boxes "that are not part of the problem," those that move on barges or on rails, she continued.

Ms. Neustadt said the National Academy of Science currently is studying bridge weight formulas and will report to Congress next month.

The ATA's Mr. Siegel said the association will recommend a legislative solution that embodies a "weight verification option." It would require shippers and carriers to supply documented evidence on the weight of a box to the trucker at the time of loading. Then the trucker would be able to determine if it is safe to put the container on his chassis.

Mr. Siegel said Congress is favorable to "some type of legislation." He added that the FMC's lack of action and the usual slow pace of the legislative process mean there will be "overweight containers on highways for another year or two."