RAIL SHIPPERS COMPLAIN ABOUT PLAN TO COVER BOARD'S COSTS WITH USER FEES

RAIL SHIPPERS COMPLAIN ABOUT PLAN TO COVER BOARD'S COSTS WITH USER FEES

An administration plan to avoid the gridlock that crippled railroad shipments last year is under attack by rail users who say paying higher fees to cover regulators' costs would discourage shippers and receivers from making safety and commercial complaints.

President Clinton's fiscal 1999 budget proposes paying the Surface Transportation Board's entire $16 million budget through new ''user fees.'' The board now charges some user fees, but at much lower levels.While the Clinton administration is pushing for regulatory agencies to charge those who benefit from their services, the board is campaigning to continue the current fiscal 1998 funding of $16 million that includes $2 million in user fees and $14 million from the Department of Transportation.

''In this regard, our position has been and continues to be that we support a financing mechanism of appropriations and offsetting collections until Congress provides a new direction,'' STB Chairwoman Linda J. Morgan wrote in a letter to the Transportation Department.

Rail users argue that the new proposal might leave them no recourse for challenging railroad practices because it would cost tens of thousands of dollars more to file complaints.

''It certainly puts another barrier in front of us to file a complaint,'' said Paul DeBruce, chief executive of Kansas City, Mo.-based DeBruce Grain Inc. ''We're spending quite a bit of money on lawyers' fees, time and energy.''

Mr. DeBruce asked the STB last year to take action against Union Pacific, alleging the railroad failed to deliver the grain company's own leased railcars. The regional grain company has elevators in Kansas, Texas, Iowa and Nebraska.

Like other complaints, Mr. DeBruce's came during a congestion crisis on UP lines triggered by the 1996 merger of UP and Southern Pacific Transportation Co. The troubles drew widespread criticism from rail users.