Highway System Is Almost Done - or Is It?

US INTERSTATES. Roads need expensive repairs and enlarged capacity; Skinner says it may cost $75 billion just to fix system's bridges

IT is reassessment time for the nation's highway builders. The vast 43,000-mile network of US Interstate highways linking all 48 contiguous states and their major cities is almost complete. The last 504 miles of the system should be finished within a few years.

In part because the federal aid program on that important highway effort runs out in 1991, various parties are now reviewing how best to chart the future of its road-building and repair efforts. Highway trade groups have been holding hearings and voicing concerns in hopes of influencing federal policy.

US Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner is taking a multi-modal approach to the job and is expected to release his recommdendations for a broad transportation policy sometime after President Bush's State of the Union address in January.

Other key issues up for decision in the next year or two include the extent to which money should go for new roads versus repair of existing roads, how to pay for the job, and what can be done to ease road congestion.

Interstate highways account for only a fraction of the 2.2 million miles of the nation's paved roads. Yet they are the roads most long-distance travelers know best. Like a franchise, the familiar red, white, and blue Interstate sign has come to signify a certain standard.

President Eisenhower launched the Interstate system in 1956 to expedite the movement of US troops anywhere in the country in an emergency. Legal challenges and the difficulty of acquiring rights of way, particularly near cities, led to shifts in plans and delays. Changes in engineering standards and funding that did not keep pace with inflation also played a role.

The next chapter of Interstate highway development remains to be written, but analysts familiar with Washington discussions say the federal government is likely to designate a smaller system of strategic highways within the system and take the prime fiscal responsibility for maintaining it.

If the Interstate system does expand, the growth may well come by upgrading existing highways rather than by new construction. Many people now assume cities can accommodate no more new roads and are not even trying to build them in some of the outer suburban rings where more highways are needed, says Robert Dunphy, director of transportation research at the Urban Land Institute.

``The mentality is that you can't do it anymore so they're not doing it in those second and third rings where one not only could build but should,'' he says.

Most transportation experts say highway repairs are the most pressing need - and will require more spending. An estimated two-thirds of all US roads are in fair to very poor condition. Interstate highways were built to last 20 years. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that by the year 2000 some 90 percent of the Interstate system will need capital improvements.

Secretary Skinner has said that just to repair highway bridges - where winter rock salt takes its toll on both the steel and concrete - will cost two-thirds as much as the $112 billion construction of the Interstate.

On the question of financing, the transportation community largely agrees that those who use the roads should pay for them. It is considered likely that a larger portion of federal funds will go to metropolitan areas than in the past and that states will have more freedom to choose how to spend federal transportation dollars.

The gasoline tax has long been the primary component of the Highway Trust Fund, but many trade groups insist that money in the fund has been held back to make the budget deficit look leaner. Many groups such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) say they want the administration to free up the trust-fund surplus before considering a hike in the federal tax.

``The big concern of the highway interests is whether there will be any attempts to either divert funds from the Highway Trust Fund for mass transit or to raise the gas tax prior to releasing some of the money now held hostage in the fund to help balance the budget,'' says AAA spokesman Richard Hebert.

Others, including the Bush administration, may prefer to see a hike in state gasoline taxes. Skinner recently helped GOP governors in Illinois and California push for such an increase.

Tolls are generally not permited on Interstates since users would in effect pay twice for the ride. But where a state toll road has been taken over by the Interstate system, collection is sometimes allowed until the construction cost is paid.

In the three decades since the Interstate system was begun, highway travel has tripled in the US. Most commuters have daily firsthand experience with gridlock. Highway officials want to see better traffic management.

One of the best answers, many feel, is car and van pooling and the designation of special lanes to encourage group travel. The recent overhaul of the Interstate network near Hartford, Conn., provided such a lane, as will Boston's expanded Central Artery.

``Continuing to build highways for single-occupancy vehicles just means you get wider and wider roads. The environmental and maintenance costs are tremendous,'' explains Daniel Fortier, chief transportation planner of the Metropolitan (Boston) Area Planning Council.

``The reality is that you can't build enough roads so everybody can get in a car and go to work,'' says Rocky Moretti of the Highway Users Federation. ``I think everybody agrees with that.''

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