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The nation's investment in transportation basics such as bridges, airports, and ships is falling behind and getting worse, says United States Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner. ``I don't think anybody realizes it, but if we had to move an army to Europe or to the Pacific Rim, I don't think we could do it,'' he told reporters at a Monitor breakfast this week.

Only 4 percent of the world's ships sail under US flag, and the domestic shipbuilding industry is moribund. A recent war simulation was scotched by the problem of massive troop movements by sea, he says.

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Closer to home, Mr. Skinner faces $80 billion in catch-up work in replacing old bridges around the country. The nation's air traffic, meanwhile, has doubled since deregulation, without a corresponding increase in airport capacity.

The Transportation Department is holding hearings all over the country this week to begin developing a long-range national transportation plan.

The point is to bring the kind of advance planning to the federal government that states commonly use. After six months in Washington, he adds: ``I am appalled at the inability of people to look beyond a crisis.''

He would like to spend his department's money differently from how it is likely to be spent.

Congress has strong advocates for subsidizing Amtrak passenger rail service and mass-transit projects, he says, cutting into budgets for the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration.

With the nation's current air fleet plus the planes on order, the FAA will not have the inspection force to properly oversee safety, Skinner says.

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