Who'll get what from the new US gasoline tax

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Passage of the federal gasoline tax increase would please - but not thrill - state highway administrators around the country, a Monitor survey shows.

The congressional action also would catch their departments in various stages of readiness to apply the increased funds that will flow from the 5 -cent-a-gallon jump in the federal tax. In certain cases the wheels could begin turning on new projects within days once the money is forthcoming from Washington. Other states are less certain when they can begin spending the new money.

Indeed, Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire and other GOP conserva-tives began a filibuster as the measure came before the full Senate Friday and prospects for prompt passage dimmed. The senator argues that it would take a minimum of four months and probably closer to a year before the program could begin to function as intended. The freshman legislator terms the proposed increase ''New Deal nonsense.''

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There are other complications. Some states do not have matching funds available to satisfy the usual federal disbursement formula - roughly an 80 percent federal contribution to 20 percent by a state - and would have to use the year allowed in one version of the bill to try to raise the money.

''I'm not going to say that matching funds aren't available,'' says Richard Adorjan, director of public affairs for the Illinois Department of Transportation. ''But if we were allowed to defer for a year, that would be very helpful.''

Others - like Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Texas - soon will have new governors who may want to reorder maintenance priorities.

Certain states fear they'll end up with less than their fair share of the increased revenues despite the provision in the House version of the bill for a guaranteed 85 percent return on taxes collected for all. This is particularly true in the vast but thinly populated West, where administrators worry that the distribution formula may end up weighted more heavily toward the vehicle-mileage traveled than toward the number of miles of roads in a state.

Many secretaries of transportation were encamped in Washington for the duration of the House and Senate debates on the bill to try to ensure that their states' interests were being protected.

Says Gerald McCarthy, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, ''We're fighting that (fair-share problem) by the hour.''

Adds Cy K. Lynn, special assistant for public affairs in the North Carolina Department of Transportation, ''Our concern is getting our fair share. We don't want to steal other states' money, but North Carolina has traditionally been a donor state - getting about 74 cents back on the dollar.''

But John Henchman, financial planning director of the Washington State Transportation Department, reports: ''We remain confident. We really believe the congressional people are going to work out a distribution system that is fair to the states.''

Massachusetts transportation officials, who did not want to be identified, expressed confidence that their congressional delegation, led by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) would ensure their state was amply rewarded when the funds were apportioned.

Several administrators surveyed declined to estimate how many new jobs the increased revenues might mean for their states. Some estimates, however, were relatively high. In Illinois, where one job in five is transportation-related, up to 26,000 new ones could result from the new federal revenues, says Mr. Adorjan. California could gain 20,000 new jobs, according to Transportation Department spokesman Bill Bronte.

No state intends to refuse the money, but all sources contacted indicate it will only partially address what has become a massive maintenance problem.

A typical response came from Mark Hopkins, administrator for programming and budget for the Florida Department of Transportation. ''We're not going to let federal money just sit on the table; we're going to use it,'' he said.

At the same time, he indicated Florida could receive less than $100 million a year from the new increase, while its highway and bridge-maintenance needs at the moment are well into the hundreds of millions.

Other responses:

* In Texas, a recently completed study found that to adequately maintain and rehabilitate state-owned roads and bridges - and to build needed new ones - would cost $3 billion a year between now and the year 2002, according to Walt Polluch, director of management information, planning, and research for the state's Department of Highways. He estimates the federal tax hike will mean $275 million to $300 million a year in additional highway funds for his state. But it is a sore point with Texans that, although they received almost $443 million from the Highway Trust Fund in fiscal 1981, theirs has traditionally been a donor state. From 1957 to 1981, Texas averaged 76 cents back on each transportation tax dollar sent to Washington.

* California needs $3.9 billion in current dollars to rehabilitate its roads and bridges and complete its Interstate Highway System, Mr. Bronte says. That compares with the roughly $275 million the state expects to receive when federal highway funds for fiscal 1983 are distributed. In fiscal 1981, the last year for which complete figures are available, the state received $649.6 million from the federal Highway Trust Fund. California, too, has long been a donor state.

* Estimated spending needs in New Jersey are $500 million a year for the next 10 years, according to Debbie Lawler, a public affairs officer for that state's Department of Transportation. A short list of the state's problems includes 398 functionally obsolete bridges, another 1,096 that are structurally deficient, 25 miles of Interstate roads that remain to be completed by 1991, and a highway maintenance staff that has been cut back to the level of 20 years ago.

* Maine currently spends about $55 million a year on maintenance, as opposed to the $80 million to $100 million a year needed ''over an extended period of time,'' according to Deputy Commissioner of Transportation Daniel Webster. But state officials are estimating a low $5 million- to $25 million-a-year share of the new revenues. ''And we'll send $25 million in to get it,'' he complains.

* Colorado's needs are a ''bottomless pit,'' says Con Shea, assistant to the executive director of the state's highway department. The state needs to spend $ 5 billion over the next 20 years to catch up with its maintenance problems, he claims.

Nationwide, says Edward Moore, research director for the construction industry-supported Road Information Program, repair needs far exceed what the increased levy would provide. ''It would take $40 billion a year for the next 10 years just to catch up,'' he maintains.

States that lack matching funds usually try to generate them through increases in their own gasoline taxes. But the outlook for passage of such increases among states surveyed is mixed.

Michigan is ''probably at the head of the list'' of those lacking matching funds, says Mr. McCarthy. The Legislature, in lame-duck session, is wrestling with a proposed increase of 4 cents a gallon in the fuel tax that both outgoing Gov. William Milliken (R) and his successor, James Blanchard (D), support.

The New Jersey Legislature doesn't seem inclined to pass a tax hike, reports Ms. Lawler. Gov. Thomas Kean (R) failed to win a 5 percent increase last summer and has proposed the measure again. ''But there seems to be less support than ever,'' she says.

Colorado ''would be OK'' if the Legislature would approve a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the fuel tax over a three-year period, says Mr. Shea. But the Legislature does not reconvene until January.

Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan (D), back for a second term, has yet to decide whether to seek a gas-tax increase, Mr. Webster says. But the governor is reminding voters that he did not promise to forego tax hikes this time as he did when elected four years ago. Maine does not have funds to match the added money the US tax increase would provide.

The Washington State Transportation Commission has asked Gov. John Spellman (R) to seek a 7-cent-a-gallon boost in the gas tax over three years, beginning in fiscal 1984.

One cent per gallon of the proposed federal gasoline tax increase - or $1.1 billion a year - would be designated for mass transit. The Washington-based American Public Transit Association estimates that would generate more than 87, 000 new jobs and would ''go a long way toward upgrading transit's infrastructure ,'' an APTA statement says. ''Many of the more depressed industries would benefit considerably.''

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