The end of the road?

The national Interstate Highway System, that marvel of highway engineering -- its 42,500-mile network still incomplete -- is wearing out. Unless action is taken soon to revise traditional revenue and funding procedures, America's highways could go the way of its railroads -- victims of neglect and inadequate maintenance.

Since the Interstate System program began 25 years ago, billions of dollars in federal motor fuel and other road-related taxes paid into the Highway Trust Fund have been funneled into construction, on a 90-10 matching ratio with the states. Until recently, maintenance responsibilities were left entirely to the states. While the roads were new, their upkeep was minimal and the states could focus their resources on the maintenance of the primary and secondary system highways within their boundaries. Now, However, the states are feeling the pinch both from a decline in tax revenues as gasoline consumption dwindles and from the inflationary impact on road costs.

The federally funded "3-R" program (for resurfacing, restoration, and rehabilitation) was established by Congress two years ago to help deal with deteriorating Interstate highways. Funded at $175 million annually for fiscal 1979 and 1980, and at $275 million a year for 1981 and 1982, the program is at best a stop-gap measure. It offers too little to meet the states' needs, and it affords no long-term solution to an accelerating problem.

As the highways are, the percentage requiring attention increases. Two thousand route miles reach "design age" each year, which means that 50 percent of the Interstate pavement will reach the end of its usable life during the 1980 s.Nearly 100,000 bridges need to be replaced or rehabilitated at an estimated cost of $33 billion.

While the situation warrants concern, I want to make it clear that America's bridges are not all in imminent danger of falling down and most of the roads we travel are not crumbling beneath us. Most of the system is in good to excellent condition today,m just as our railroads were once the pride of our nation's transportation system. But unless we keep up, unless our national road network is treated like the valuable asset it is, the cost and extent of the repair responsibility could become overwhelming. As it stands now, some 200,000 miles of highway will need some level of capital investment -- from resurfacing to reconstruction -- during the next 10 years.

Based upon extensive discussions with transporation leaders across the nation we are targeting two major goals for future highway legislation: (1) to assure timely completion of the Interstate System and (2) to support flexibility in highway funding allocations so that states can move their funds from construction to reconstruction, to give higher priority to the rehabilitation of the system in place.

Our strategy is rooted in the logic that the nation's highway map is nearly complete. All but a few of the dots have been connected. The four percent of the Interstate System not yet open to traffic is a major concern because the stretched-out schedule is proving very costly. The entire system was estimated to cost $27 billion when the program was launched in 1956. To date, we have invested nearly $80 billion and the projected additional cost to complete the system is now in the neighborhood of $60 billion.

For that reason, Interstate decision and construction dates must be set and met, and nonessential segments dropped. Categorical programs must be simplified or broadened, so that states can put federal assistance funds where they are most needed. And the division of funds between new construction and "3-R" projects must become more equitable.

Our highway program also needs new revenue sources.Largely because gasoline sales are down, the Highway Trust Fund is leveling off at a time when construction and repair costs are soaring. The federal fuel tax of four cents a gallon has not changed since 1959, while construction costs today stand at 360 percent of the 1967 base index.

Unless renewed, Highway Trust Fund revenues will terminate in 1984 and the fund itself will expire in 1985. One issue the new administration and the Congress will have to deal with is a replacement for or an extension of the trust fund, to assure a tax structure that will support the nation's highway program for the '80s and '90s.

Our highways today are a national necessity, not a personal luxury. The majority of the products we use move on our highways, and the highway share of ton-miles of freight movement is projected to increase 3 to 5 percent a year for the remainder of this century. Ninety percent of all trips are by highway. Roads connect people and jobs, products and markets, commodities all ports.

America's highways have long been central to the nation's economy and essential to our mobility. They must not be short-changed at a time when the future of our economy depends so largely on our ability to use our transportation assets wisely, and when our efforts to conserve energy require efficient systems.

In the 60-plus years of the federal-aid road program we have invested $300 billion in the nation's highways. By properly maintaining our roads and bridges we can avoid spending many times that amount to some day rebuild them.

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