WILL THE federal government give the Alaska Railroad to the state of Alaska, a state with so much oil revenue it gives away thousands of dollars to its citizens? We thought the issue had been settled, for this Congress anyway, when Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), by threatening a filibuster, prevented the measure from being considered. But at a quarter to seven on Tuesday night, staffers for Sen. Metzenbaum and Sen. Ted Stevens (R- Alaska) reached a compromise, and by a quarter after seven it had passed the Senate.

What they agreed to was this. The U.S. Railway Association -- a body set up to handle liquidation of private railroad properties in the Northeast -- will conduct a nine-month study and place a fair market value on the Alaska Railroad. That price will include a valuation for non-railroad use of land the railroad owns. The state government would then have the option of purchasing the railroad for that price -- or taking control for free if the USRA decides the value is negative or zero.

Sen. Stevens has maintained all along that the railroad, which has significant liabilities, is worthless except for someone who wants to sell its rolling stock and rails abroad. The federal government has an interest in maintaining the railroad, he says, as the only means of getting heavy equipment to certain military bases; but the feds won't spend enough to maintain it. Can we be assured that the state will? Sen. Stevens maintains also that the state is unwilling to pay anything for the railroad. But perhaps that just means that the state is the tougher bargainer here.

Anyway, we are pleased that the valuation question will be handled by a neutral and competent agency. We're highly suspicious of giveaways of major federal assets to a state government when the state's senior senator is stage-managing the legislation and assures one and all that the asset is not worth anything anyway. Sen. Metzenbaum has done the country a service by securing an independent appraisal of this fishy-sounding deal.