Samuel K. Skinner, secretary of transportation, said Wednesday that the Bush administration still opposes setting aside a portion of U.S. food aid cargoes for movement through the Great Lakes.

He offered perhaps some scant hope to Great Lakes interests pushing for renewal of the program by noting that the issue is one of the topics involved in the department's review of maritime policy.Mr. Skinner said his education on maritime policy in general, which he referred to as "Maritime 104," is continuing, because the "first comprehensive review of U.S. maritime policy caused me to go back to school."

The secretary said he has had a series of meetings with the Maritime Administration and other federal agencies on maritime topics.

"When we're done, we'll have a good handle on what needs to be done," he continued. The secretary dropped in on a Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. breakfast meeting with reporters. The meeting was called to preview a Seaway trade mission to the Soviet Union that starts March 2.

Mr. Skinner talked very little about the trade mission, except to say that the Seaway is a "valued asset" and "we ought to find ways to use it."

But the so-called Great Lakes set-aside was a popular topic. The set- aside, a part of the 1985 Farm Bill compromise on U.S.-flag cargo preference for agricultural programs, reserved about 240,000 tons of Food for Peace cargo a year to the region.

The set-aside expired in December, and Great Lakes interests hope to get it reinstated this year during the debate on new farm legislation.

Mr. Skinner said the set-aside issue is "extremely complicated and there is not any easy solution. Many things we have done may have solved one problem, then created problems in other areas."

He said the maritime review "will look at all these issues so we can quantify what these restrictions are costing."

The administration, however, has "no position in favor of the set-aside. We have taken the position that (allowing it to expire) is consistent with current preference policy," said Mr. Skinner.

James L. Emery, administrator of the Seaway corporation, finds himself caught in the middle on the set-aside question because one of his goals as administrator is to increase Seaway traffic.

On the one hand, he has to support the administration position on the Great Lakes set-aside. On the other, "I want to encourage the use of the Seaway in any way I can," Mr. Emery said.

While a set-aside "may or may not be the best way to go," he continued, ''I have encouraged Lakes interests to get a plan, and have a united effort. I think there is a compromise position and Congress is where it will happen; until I'm told to keep quiet, I will continue to speak about it."

Mr. Emery said the Seaway corporation is a "catalyst for the Great Lakes and we will continue to do that."

Mr. Skinner also indicated that the eagerly awaited national transportation policy study will emerge in a few weeks.