TRANSPORT INDUSTRY FINDS FLAWS IN NEW POLICY

TRANSPORT INDUSTRY FINDS FLAWS IN NEW POLICY

Transportation industry officials generally praised the Bush administration for developing a new national transportation policy but many found important flaws in the plan.

The policy, released Thursday by President Bush and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, calls for states and the private sector to play a larger role in financing and improving the nation's congested highways and

airports.The document, the Department of Transportation's main policy project for the last year,also proposes higher taxes - the government calls them user fees - on airline passengers, railroads and some maritime and boating interests.

Few details are provided, however, especially on key highway spending issues.

"Overall, we're pleased with the report, but we're still waiting to see the numbers," said Carlton Robinson, executive vice president of the Highway Users Federation.

Thomas J. Donohue, president of American Trucking Associations, called the policy "a sound basis from which Congress can address highway issues."

But the trucking official said he is opposed to one of the policy's key planks: increased highway toll collections, including tolls on roads built with federal funds.

Meanwhile, major airlines will oppose administration plans for higher taxes on passengers and air cargo.

Robert Aaronson, president of the Air Transport Association, called the tax proposals "outrageous" when they first were unveiled in the president's budget last month. The aviation industry wants the government to spend surpluses in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which is supported by existing aviation taxes, before new fees are collected.

The airlines also oppose the policy's call for a head tax on passengers. Revenue from the tax would be used by local airports to build new runways and expand facilities.

"We're concerned that the money will be siphoned off for non-airport programs or road construction," said Tim Neale, a spokesman for the airline association.

The maritime industry endorsed the policy's general approach but questions what is meant by its call for "greater standardization" in the sizes and types of shipping containers.

Joe Farrell, president of The American Waterways Operators, said the policy will provide "helpful guideposts for future federal policy." He also called it "remarkably deficient in that it addresses least effectively what is arguably the most neglected mode of transportation - the U.S. maritime industry."

U.S-flag liner operators applauded the commitment to a revision of the operating subsidy program.

Domestic tanker and bulk operators commended the policy's support for additional study before requiring double hulls and double bottoms on tankers.

W. Patrick Morris, vice president and general counsel of the Shipbuilders Council of America, said he had not seen the final document, but it "appears to call for further studies, and the industry has been studied to death."

The policy says the government will protect U.S. transportation companies

from "unfair and discriminatory" practices of foreign countries, including government supports that put U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage.

Mr. Morris of the shipbuilders said that provision is "broad enough to include us."

Richard Briggs, executive vice president of the Association of American Railroads, said the policy includes "some good solid principles that should give us a sound transportation system."

But the railroad industry opposes new fees to cover government safety inspections and would have preferred a a federal commitment to raise highway taxes on heavy trucks. Railroads maintain that truckers do not pay fully for the damage they cause to roads.

Billy Higgins, director of government relations for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the policy is likely to "elevate transportation needs to a higher agenda."

But he also said the plan offers no clear strategy for spending surpluses in the Highway Trust Fund and has "no specifics" on road financing plans.

Mr. Skinner, in a meeting with reporters, defended the policy against charges that it has too few details.

"You don't need to be specific and you can't be specific until we get the reauthorization bills before Congress," he said.

Federal spending legislation for the nation's highway and aviation networks will be renewed during the coming year.

Mr. Skinner also said the policy is "not a panacea or the answer to all of the problems in transportation. It was never intended to be that."

Rather, he called the plan a "blueprint" that sets out "long-range" goals for transportation.

"The policy emphasizes doing the right things with our limited resources," he said.

Broadly, the plan calls for an expanded transportation system with a sound

financial base. It also emphasizes increased safety, national security and environmental protection.

House transportation leaders gave Mr. Skinner's new policy a cool reception during a hearing Thursday to review the plan.

Most criticized it for not establishing a clear strategy for reducing surpluses in the highway and aviation trust funds.

"I see no assurances in your policy statement that we can expect the spending of the balances in the trust funds," said Glenn Anderson, D-Calif., chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate's water resources and transportation subcommittee, said the new policy should have included large ideas. "Instead, we have what is left of a modest proposal shredded by budget examiners."

The head of the rail industry's labor coalition, Richard I. Kilroy, however, said the new policy, "insofar as it affects the rights of rail workers, appears to be more of a political statement than a blueprint for improving our ailing transportation network."

Mr. Kilroy, president of the Railway Labor Executives' Association, accused the White House of having "politicized this aspect of the transportation debate by taking sides with management at a time of very strained labor-management relations," in calling for the repeal of several programs that benefit railroad workers.