States put new federal highway repair money to work

Project Infrastructure is under way. Even before Uncle Sam starts collecting the extra nickel-a-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel April 1, crews should be working on the first of the badly needed road repair and construction projects it was designed to help set in motion.

And once a clear pattern of spring weather has been established, still more work will begin. By midsummer, detours, single-lane traffic, and flagmen will be in profusion across much of the United States.

This doesn't mean that all the roads, bridges, and other facilities whose deterioration has been the subject of television documentaries and magazine cover stories will be fixed overnight. Not when, as various highway study groups contend, there is a $400 billion backlog of repair work to be done.

According to the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, with the exception of some road resurfacing projects, it would take years for all the necessary work to be completed even if there were ample money to begin it now.

But the new levy does allow states to move up some long-delayed projects, especially on incomplete or worn-out sections of the Interstate Highway System.

And some of the states have been quick to act. President Reagan's signing of the Surface Transportation Act of 1982, centerpiece of the recent lame-duck session of Congress, authorized them to advertise for bids on stored-up projects that were awaiting greater federal aid. It also provided the Highway Trust Fund with an additional $4 billion a year through fiscal 1986 to help cover construction and repair costs.

Virginia, for one, expects that ''by the end of the month there'll be some dirt flying'' on various projects, says state Department of Highways and Transportation spokesman A.W. Coates.

Texas is scheduled to award contracts March 23-24, and work will probably begin on the first projects by mid-May, according to the state Department of Highways.

Maryland expects its spending on capital projects to jump from $212 million in fiscal 1982 to $280 million in '83 and to $350 million in '84, according to state highway administrator M.Slade Caltrider. Perhaps the most visible project will be the resurfacing of 30 miles of I-95, the Capital Beltway, on the eastern edge of Washington, D.C.

California's infrastructure problems have been aggravated by the recent storms that have battered its coast, completely closing the famous Highway 1 and temporarily making the ground too soggy for new construction or repair work elsewhere. But Department of Transportation spokesman Art Lichtman says his agency will ask the California Transportation Commission for $71 million this week to fund various road projects. The bidding process could begin in April. Among the first projects are two bridge replacements near the Oregon border.

Already, the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) reports that the money approved for state road and bridge projects in February under the new law is the most on record: $1.1 billion. Obligations for March also appear to be on a billion-dollar pace, according to FHwA deputy administrator Lester Lamm. The January total was $902 million, the second highest for that month, even though it was six days old before Mr. Reagan signed the act into law.

If the trend continues, FHwA predicts that such approvals will top the $8 billion mark by as soon as May 1. That is as much as was obligated in all of fiscal 1982. The Surface Transportation Act sets a ceiling of $12.1 billion for obligations in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Next year the limit goes to $12.75 billion.

''The money is being obligated [approved], and that's the first big step,'' agrees Woody Rankin, director of transportation for the Highway Users Federation in Washington. ''We'll see maybe 50 percent more projects than last year.''

One-third of the new money, however, is earmarked for construction on unfinished sections of the Interstate system. Texas, for example, will push for early completion of a 20- to 30-mile stretch of I-27 between Lubbock and Amarillo. Georgia will issue contracts in April to begin widening I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta from six lanes to 10. Cost of the project: an estimated $1.6 billion. Colorado - if its Legislature passes a gas-tax increase to provide state matching funds - will begin completion of a 12-mile widening project on I-70 at Glenwood Canyon in a high-cost, environmentally sensitive area west of Denver.

Some who track the construction industry question whether the states will be able to find enough minority-owned businesses to satisfy the terms of the Surface Transportation Act. The act stipulates that 10 percent of the new road and bridge contracts go to such firms. But Mr. Lamm says he doesn't anticipate a serious problem.

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