A powerful coalition of truckers, railroads and container manufacturers who carry or package hazardous materials is working to save its own federal regulator from the budget knife and moves to turn programs over to the states.

They are doing so for the same reason a number of interest groups have cited in recent months: one federal regulator, in this case the Department of Transportation, is easier to deal with than 50 state regulators.

"I have to admit we're in a somewhat uncomfortable position," one of the transporters said last week, "because we support most of the deregulatory effort and the budget cuts and we worked for Republicans during the election. But this is transportation, and it has to be regulated federally."

Budget cutbacks in DOT's Materials Transportation Bureau, shippers fear, are going to force the federal government to get out of the business of telling them how to keep records, how to pack, and what route to take when they carry hazardous materials--anything from a radioactive nuclear fuel rod to a drum of toxic chemicals.

The bureau is one of many agencies that took an unexpected cut in the current fiscal year because of the continuing resolution and further cuts are still being sought in the $7.5 million officially budgeted for it in fiscal 1983.

A recent letter to Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis was signed by top officials from the American Trucking Associations, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Steel Shipping Container Institute, the Association of American Railroads, the National L-P Gas Association, the Fertilizer Institute and the Hazardous Materials Advisory Council.

"We believe it is self-evident," the letter said, "that a multiplicity of conflicting state and local laws and regulations will result in an intolerable burden on interstate commerce, with seriously detrimental consequences to public safety, as well as the national economy."

The concern, of course, is that as a shipment of hazardous toxic materials moves across the country, the railroad or trucker will have to stop at every state border and meet a new set of inspections and regulations.

Some states--particularly Ohio and New York--have been pushing for more local control on the routing of hazardous shipments. For the most part, however, DOT, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has preempted most state rules with federal standards.

That's just the way it should be, according to William H. Dempsey of the American Association of Railroads. In his own letter to Lewis he wrote, "It should be noted that abandoning any area of hazardous material transportation regulation to the states and localities runs counter to another major objective of the administration--the reduction of government regulation."

L.D. Santman of DOT's Materials Transportation Bureau said, "It's a hard question for us. Are you out there competing with the private sector? How much federal presence do you need?"

Tom Blank, a spokesman for Secretary Lewis, said, "We will maintain a high level of public safety in our view and this will not lead to a patchwork situation with state and local regulation."

That view prevailed last week when the Office of Management and Budget's regulatory review shop cleared a joint DOT-EPA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that hazardous materials transporters have wanted for a long time.

The proposed rule would establish a standard manifest, or shipping form, that would be used for transporting hazardous materials anywhere in the country. Several states worked with the transporters to develop the form, which would replace a number of separate state forms.

The budget problem has also forced an important secondary issue. For years, DOT has represented U.S. interests in international negotiations concerning hazardous transportation and a DOT official is the chairman of a United Nations committee that is working toward a standardized set of international rules.

The international work, Santman said, is "labor intensive," and in some cases was more "economic than safety related." Should Commerce or State do it? he asked. Transporters say they are concerned the United States will lose its chairmanship on the U.N. committee if that function leaves DOT.