Cuts in federal highway funds may mean rougher roads ahead

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Traffic signs do not announce it, but American motorists may find the road ahead very bumpy. Those strips of asphalt that make it so easy get from here to there are beginning to crack, crumble, and erode from age and lack of care.

At the same time, the financial pressures that have slowed road building and maintenance in many states may well increase under the Reagan blueprint for trimming federal highway aid, analysts point out.

The mayor revenue source for expanding and repairing the nation's system of roads is state and federal gasoline taxes. Declining gas consumption has diminished those revenues, and now President Reagan wants to slow the growth of federal spending on highways by about $11 billion through 1986.

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"for motorists it's a choice of paying more or doing with less," says George Viverette of the American Automobile Association. He explains that in order to cope with the reduction of federal support, states will have to raise gasoline taxes or other transportation-related fees or let more roads deteriorate.

The proposed Reagan reductions would be achieved by norrowing the focus of the federal program. The plan concentrates on funding the completion of the Interstate highway system, other primary roads, and bridge repairs, while phasing out aid for secondary roads and urban highways.

The Reagan administration also would like to scale down highway safety grants from $200 million in 1981 to $81 million in 1986 by narrowing the kinds of programs that would qualify for federal support. The proposal includes ending federal funds designated to help states enforce the 55 m.p.h. speed limit.

The sternest warning about the Reagan plan comes from some state transportation officials who fear less attention to the nation's road system could result in shortterm savings but higher future costs.

"We hope Congress realizes the size of the investment we already have in the highway network," say Billy Higgins of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He warns that neglecting this investment could mean heavier expenses in years ahead, drawing a parallel to the way many railroads were left to deteriorate for years -- and now need massive federal subsidies for upgrading.

However, others believe the quickly rising costs of highway building and repair call for new priorities at the federal level. In a recent report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated it would cost the federal government $ 10.4 billion annually for 10 years to complete and upgrade the Interstate system.

Assuming the federal government simply will not allocate that much money for highways, the GAO suggests the highway administration focus on filling in the gaps that now exist in the Interstate system. The network is now 94 percent complete.

As it stands now, almost half the federal funds for Interstate construction are used to bring existing highways in the system up to standard.

A GAO transportation analyst says that motorists are already riding on deteriorating roads. He points out that on the Interstate system, the portion of highways classified in poor condition has risen from 4 percent in 1975 to 9 percent in 1978.

A basic problem facing all states, aside from the erosion of gas tax revenues , is the fast rate of inflation in highway construction and maintenance costs. Largely because many road materials are energy intensive, highway construction costs have been rising at a 17 percent annual clip -- faster than the overall rate of inflation in consumer prices.

With revenues slowing and costs escalating, the highway trust fund that supports the federal program has begun spending more than it takes in. The fund has been drawing on its accumulated balance of more than $10 billion to meet obligations.

The highway fund will receive revenues only through 1984, and Congress may move to extend its life or find a replacement source of highway funds this year or next. If it does, the question of whether the 4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax should be increased will probably be raised in the debate.

US Transportation Secretary Andrew (Drew) Lewis Jr. said recently that the Reagan administration supports extending the trust fund through 1990 but does not favor an increase in the tax.

However, even if motorists are spared a Tax hike at the federal level, analysts feel increases are inevitable in many cases at the state level.

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