Reagan may not fill remaining gaps in US interstate highway system

Will the nationhs Interstate highway system ever be finished? Many in Washington have tried to answer this question -- so far, without success. The project, which began in 1956, has dragged for more than a decade beyond the original target date for completion. And much more remains to be done.

Now a Reagan administration transportation task force recommends that most of the remaining "gaps" -- 4 to 5 percent of the entire system -- be scrapped.

Most members of Congress buy the general idea of ending the job. But if past efforts serve as any indication, they are apt to disagree strongly over the portions of the Interstate to be dropped. Last year Congress voted to add eight more miles to the system.

"Politically it's a 'Catch-22' situation," sighs one Federal Highway Administration (FHA) source who has kept close watch over similar efforts in the past.

Still, veteran observers of the Interstate system's development see some potential for a quick end to the project and trims in the estimated $60 billion completion cost through trade-off negotiations with state highway departments and Congress. In exchange for achieving these two goals, the federal government would pick up the tab for any reconstruction necessary during highway maintenance. Technically, the states have been responsible for keeping the Interstate up to par, but few have the funds to do the periodic reconstruction work required.

"About 10 percent of the existing system is really at or beyond its design life," explains Francis Francois, executive director of the American Association of State highway and Transportation Officials. "The issue is no longer maintenance but reconstruction."

Some Washington observers also see potential for streamlining the completion job by holding to strict deadlines set by Congress over the next six years for submitting environmental impact statements and signing contracts for Interstate construction.

Lawsuits filed by environmentalists and by those displaced by highway construction have held up action on much of the uncompleted portion of the system. Both major professional organizations representing state highway officials and highway users would like to see most of the planned Interstate system completed

"Controversy is no reason to cancel construction plans," insists Peter Koltnow, president of the Highway Users Federation, who says his organization favors "continused, aggressive" work on the system.

But both groups also support Congress's deadline plan as a way of deciding what portions, if any, should be scrapped.

One of the most costly parts of the remaining work is to upgrade existing highway sections to meet current design and engineering standards -- from the steepness of slope and number of lanes required to the inclusion of noise barriers and rest stops.

While states may be reluctant to give up such amenities when they can lean on the federal government for 90 percent of Interstate construction funding, veteran highway watchers in Washington do see hope in a general willingness by all parties to reexamine the entire Interstate plan with an eye to need and economy.

"We think much more flexibility needs to be put in the program," suggest Mr. Francois. He and his state highway official colleagues say as much as $20 billion, one-third of the estimated Interstate completion cost, could be saved by compromises on unbuilt portions.

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