PRESIDENT'S PRIORITIES DON'T SEEM TOO IMPORTANT

PRESIDENT'S PRIORITIES DON'T SEEM TOO IMPORTANT

Every administration in Washington uses the publicity apparatus of executive agencies to promote the man at the top. This means the president gets credit for a lot of things he didn't even know his administration was doing - and never takes the blame for its failures.

Just about every press release issued by the Department of Transportation contains the following statement, usually in the first two paragraphs: ''Safety is President Clinton and Vice President Gore's highest transportation priority.''In a release last week, DOT added: ''and the North Star by which Secretary Slater and the U.S. Department of Transportation is guided.'' (We'll ignore the ungrammatical ''is'' that assumes Slater and the DOT are one.)

Proving the release writers at DOT know who the ultimate boss is, a release announcing a grant for environmental purposes claims: ''President Clinton and Vice President Gore are committed to protecting the environment.''

Thirty years ago, when this writer was a lowly DOT functionary in the Nixon administration, every press release had to cite President Nixon's involvement, usually in the first two paragraphs. Where Nixon rarely acknowledged the existence of Vice President Spiro Agnew, Clinton seems to need all the help he can get, so Al Gore shares credit. Of course, Agnew wasn't running for president.

Washington reporters (which I also once was) know the practice for the harmless, if annoying, hype that it is. The phrase rarely gets used, so the only real effect is to demonstrate to the political commissars that the press-release writer knows and follows the rules.

Why bring this up now, with the Clinton administration in its final nine months? Because while it claims transportation safety and the environment are high priorities, its actions say they clearly are not.

Nearly two years ago, Congress passed - and the president signed - legislation that provided federal loans to short-line railroads that could not find private-sector financing for needed capital infrastructure investments.

To date, DOT has not come up with funding for a single project. It hasn't written the rules to implement the loan program. It hasn't even set a deadline for doing so.

An example of the need is the so-called ''286 problem.'' The Class 1 railroads that account for 90 percent of industry revenue and about 75 percent of industry carloads are rapidly shifting to the use of freight cars that weigh 286,000 pounds when fully loaded. That's an additional 12 tons of payload over the previous industry standard of 263,000 pounds maximum gross weight.

Many of the more than 500 short lines in the industry have track structures that cannot handle the heavier-weight cars. Nor, for the most part, are they able to find private-sector funding for track rehabilitation projects.

Short lines just don't have the revenue to support commercial loans. Remember the statistics: They handle 25 percent of carloads and receive 10 percent of rail freight revenue. Most of their traffic is interchanged with Class 1 carriers that take a larger share of the revenue.

Class 1 railroads remind short lines of their second-class status in other ways.

The short lines often were created when major railroads decided to get rid of branch or secondary lines for which they saw little future need. The sale contract frequently contained clauses allowing the connecting major road to set the price for the entire move, require the short line to obtain cars from the major railroad and even require the short line to interline with the major railroad/former owner, even when a physical connection to another carrier exists.

With the shift to heavier cars, many short lines face the prospect of being driven out of business if they cannot handle heavier loadings, or must slow trains to a maximum of 10 miles an hour.

Slow speed may not be so bad for a 10-mile short line; the car still can be moved with only one crew. But for an agricultural or forest-products line of 100 miles or more, 10 mph maximum speed is as good as a death knell for its grain or lumber traffic, probably the only revenue freight available.

Farmers will take their grain to elevator operators located on the Class 1 main lines, where they will get more for their grain because with the heavier loadings, transportation charges will be lower. Lumber shippers will haul by truck over longer distances, usually on curvy mountain roads.

Congress believed - and the president must have, too, for he signed the legislation - that this would be bad.

More trucks on rural roads can't be good for the environment. The ability to handle the heavier cars on lines and across rail bridges that were ignored for years by their former Class 1 owners certainly presents a safety issue. Both are pressing transportation issues.

Tell us again how high a priority these kinds of things are for the Clinton-Gore administration.