US highway officials ponder ways to meet big repair bill

Thump! Bang! Jolt!

Your car bounces through the intricate labyrinth of potholes seemingly designed to aggravate your morning commute. A feeling of helplessness sneaks in as you anticipate expensive repairs for your car.

You are not alone.

Drivers who despair over many of the nation's deteriorating highways are being joined by a growing number of road planners who are worried about maintaining America's extensive road system.

The Federal Highway Administration is studying options to increase revenues for highway repair and maintenance, one of which is the imposition of tolls. Several states, including Maine and Wisconsin, are also looking into the wisdom of collecting increased tolls.

Currently, roughly 4,400 miles of the 3.5 million miles of roads in the United States have tolls, while fewer than 200 of the 560,000 public-highway bridges collect fees.

Many are concerned that in some areas there is not, and probably won't be in the near future, enough revenue from present sources to raise the roughly $230 billion needed over the next 13 years for road repair and upkeep.

Bridges are also a problem. One of every 5 bridges in the country is closed, open only to light vehicles, or requires immediate attention to stay open.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHwA), which for the past two years has distributed more funds than it has received, failed in a recent effort to get the Reagan administration's backing to raise the 4-cent federal gasoline tax by 5 cents. The government takes in $1.1 billion for every penny of the federal gasoline tax, which has not been raised for 23 years. But administrators complain that the purchasing value of the income has declined. Also, as more drivers are limiting their driving and own more fuel-efficient cars, funds raised from the tax have declined.

Tolls, therefore, appear an attractive option to some officials. The law now says, however, that if a state does impose a toll, it must pay the federal government the original cost of the Interstate highway. Also, toll-road mileages are not eligible in determining the amount of federal aid a state may request.

Ray Barnhart, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, says that, while he would have ''serious problems'' with advocating the use of tolls on more highways, he would like to see local governments have more control over roads currently restricted by federal law.

Other options are also under consideration. Some people would like to throw more responsibility onto the states by turning over to them the care of secondary and urban road systems. Then, states would probably have to raise certain taxes.

Another idea is to phase out so-called demonstration projects which are specially funded to try new solutions to existing problems. According to Richard Reilly, an FHwA official, these programs have proliferated over the years, and there is an ''inclination'' to consolidate them.

The most seriously considered option is an increase in highway user fees.

While the federal gas tax will remain unchanged, at least for now, taxes could be raised on such things as tires, tread rubber, lubricating oil, new trucks and parts, and annual truck user fees.

A recent FHwA study indicated that while cars were paying their way on the highways, heavy trucks were not. This could result in a reallocation of user fees.

While such a move might be well received at least by car drivers, Mr. Barnhart acknowledges that a protest by consumers and politicians in the event of higher gas taxes would be likely, although he adds that taxes which the FHwA might consider would cost the consumer only about $2.50 a month. Too, there is a problem of perception about roads.

''People don't appreciate roads, as we've always had good ones,'' he says. But we have 25-year-old roads that were built with a 20-year life expectancy, and they need good maintenance.''

States suffer from this perception. While most have managed the upkeep on their roads through a mixture of state and federal funding, a look ahead indicates the need for increased efforts in raising funds.

Maine, which received some federal aid when connecting its turnpike to an Interstate, had agreed to make its turnpike toll-free after paying off bonds floated for its construction. The state decided to keep the barriers, however, to raise funds for state roads near the turnpike.

This decision required paying back money lent by Washington as well as legislation by Congress to allow such a move. One measure under consideration by the FHwA is to turn this into a simple administrative procedure.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin, which already has a higher state fuel tax than most states, has done a preliminary in-house study of the possibility of placing tolls on its 530 miles of Interstate highways.

The study was ''interesting enough,'' says Edmund Byrkit, a highway official, to have the state transportation department authorize a closer look, the results of which it hopes to have by early next year.

If it appears feasible, he adds, the state may proceed to see if it can encourage modification of federal law.

Mr. Byrkit says others states may be interested, too, particularly those in which much interstate traffic traverses the borders without ever contributing to the upkeep of the highways.

Whether through increased taxes or tolls, consumers face higher bills for road upkeep, unless maintenance programs are seriously curtailed by Congress.

Even so, they can take some comfort in the fact that it is cheaper to maintain a road or bridge than to ignore it.

As Mr. Barnhart points out, ''If we continue to delay because of the cost of rehabilitation, then we will all pay more dearly as costs escalate.''

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