Labor-industry panel tackles repair agenda for worn out roads and aging bridges

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Saying ''the cost of doing nothing is simply too great,'' a labor-industry panel recommends investing about $10 billion a year over the next decade to ''save'' the nation's deteriorating highways, bridges, and water-and-sanitation systems.

''It would be a sad commentary on our leadership, our political leadership, if we wait for disasters to occur before we address our major problems,'' said AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who heads a labor section of the panel.

The study was conducted by the Labor-Management Group, a consortium of business and labor leaders that has been studying the major needs of the country's infrastructure.

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The study, just released, is part of AFL-CIO's broad recommendations for ''insuring the revitalization of the nation's sick industries and decaying communities.''

According to the Labor-Management Group report, federal and state funds have been ''misdirected'' to new capital projects, for the most part in the South and West, while repair and maintenance of roads and systems have largely been neglected unless major problems - such as the Connecticut bridge disaster last summer - made immediate action mandatory.

The study also noted that roads, bridges, and water systems built early in the 1900s during periods of population growth, industrialization, and urbanization - particularly in the Northeast and Midwest - now are ''reaching the twilight of their natural lives.'' The report cited, among other instances, major water-main breaks that have occurred in New York City this year.

The study proposes spending $9 billion to $11 billion annually, or a total of about $100 billion over 10 years, to upgrade highways and other national support systems. It recommends that the money come from increased user fees - including tolls and utility charges - and from increased government appropriations, taxes targeted for improvements, and bond money.

C.C. Garvin, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Corporation, heads the industry section of the group. John T. Dunlop, a Harvard University professor and former US secretary of labor, serves as coordinator.

Many who recognize the problems question whether the annual appropriations would be enough. Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R) of New Jersey says $10 billion would be required to deal with infrastructure needs in that state alone.

Labor's interest in the proposed program is in part related to the jobs that would be created, both directly and indirectly, by creating work in steel and other industries.

Also toward that end - but separate from the Labor Management Group study - the AFL-CIO is calling for the creation of a National Industrial Policy Board with representatives of labor, management, and government to study needs of US industry. Such a board would be named by the President but, so far, Reagan has been cool toward the proposal.

The board would hold hearings to focus national attention on the needs of ailing industries and would recommend aid through a range of strategic government support - from low-cost credit to protection from import competition.

Such a board also would supervise a National Industrial Development Bank, patterned after the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which operated between the 1930s and the '50s. Its purpose would be to make and guarantee loans to finance reindustrialization projects.

AFL-CIO's proposal has some industry support, mostly from those industries that would welcome financial and trade assistance. However, there is substantial opposition from business conservatives. They question whether it is better to have ''economic allocation decisions made by 230 million Americans acting in the free marketplace or 20 or 30 government planners acting collectively,'' as Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan recently put it.

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