A few days ago Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole released the first in what she promises will be a series of reviews of agencies' performance in regulating and enforcing transportation safety.

"The issue now under review," the report on the Federal Aviation Administration said, is whether the agency "has and can keep pace with the industry and the environment . . . . The FAA has acknowledged that a gap exists between the actual air carrier operational environment and FAA regulatory requirements."

The report went on to complain about FAA foot-dragging on important safety regulations and discussed the FAA's empires within an empire, wherein regional offices or offices within FAA headquarters have enough autonomy that they can ignore central direction.

What is new about this document is not the findings but the fact that the findings have finally been expressed at the level of the secretary's office. Over the last decade, other reports have asked the same questions about the FAA, in surprisingly similar language.

In 1974, a House investigations panel released an exhaustive report on FAA operations that found "a tendency for the agency to avoid the role of leadership in advancing air safety which the Congress intended it to assume."

In 1980, after 273 people died in the crash of an American Airlines DC10 built by McDonnell Douglas, the National Academy of Sciences convened a panel of aircraft manufacturing and maintenance experts. Among several specific recommendations, their central point was this:

"To improve the present system of aviation safety regulation will call for an exceptional capacity to imagine unlikely problems, and thus to anticipate the need for further rules and practices, before the unpredictable accident strikes . . . . The FAA must take more initiative in every aspect of its work and, to do so, it must improve the expertise and quality of the technical staff and advisers upon whose judgment it relies."

In other words, everyone who looks at the FAA comes to a similar conclusion: that it reacts rather than taking the lead. That is a standard argument for eliminating government regulation, but there is an established political consensus that aviation, especially commercial aviation, should be guaranteed safe by government.

FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen said this most recent report is "on the mark" and pointed to several organizational changes aimed at improving the agency.

Nonetheless, when Congress returns after Labor Day, Engen is likely to feel like a shooting-gallery target. Important members of Congress have been furious at FAA delays on passenger-cabin fire safety and on the development and installation of wind-shear detection systems. More questions are certain to be asked in many hearings scheduled or planned.

Dole said in a recent interview that reports will be released in the next several months on the Federal Railroad Administration; the Research and Special Programs Administration, which has a major role in regulating the transportation of hazardous materials; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Coast Guard and the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.

Dole's FAA report did not mention costs, and responsible safety enforcement can be expensive. Aviation usually has been able to find the money because it has a trust fund financed by ticket taxes and because aviation safety is popular on Capitol Hill -- if for no other reason than that politicians fly.

Many transportation safety specialists say they believe that cost is the key issue in addressing safety questions. It remains to be seen whether the department's reports will raise the dollar issues when they get to highways, railroads, pipelines and barges.

ALL ABOARD . . . Dole has been traveling in the Far East this month with her husband the majority leader, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). While he was talking to the Japanese about protectionist sentiment in Congress, she was touring on the Japanese National Railroad and was photographed enjoying a ride in the engineer's cab. That railroad is one of world's least efficient and most subsidized, and even the famous bullet train runs with enormous governmental aid. It is doubtful that Dole got pointers on how to trim Amtrak subsidies on this junket.

HELPING THE HELP . . . While she was there, however, she did get a chance to help U.S. aviation crash investigators who were mainly twiddling their thumbs after having been invited to help in the probe of the recent Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 crash that killed 520.

U.S. authorities wanted to be certain there was no obvious problem with the 747 to which they should alert the rest of the world, but they needed to see the wreckage and were having difficulty gaining access. Dole intervened, and the cooperation between U.S. and Japanese investigators is now described as excellent.

Repairs made after a 1978 accident involving the same plane are receiving increasing attention from the probers. The plane's tail struck the runway hard on landing and caused some damage. Repairs were made in consultation with Boeing, and the plane was returned to service.