Infrastructure Face-Lift Overdue

Washington will foot most of $750 billion bill, but larger state role in financing is expected. AMERICA'S CRUMBLING ROADWAYS

THE average American commuter is grumbling, and Federal and state officials say it's with good reason. Almost half of the country's bridges are deficient. Up to half of the 43,000 miles of interstate highway are in poor to fair condition. Air traffic control in the country's hubs are called ``stress centers,'' weaving aerial webs.

The Iron Workers' Union says repairing these roads and bridges will cost $750 billion, 50 percent more than the estimated costs of the savings-and-loan bailout.

``The immense cost of this investment has scared many political leaders into inaction,'' warns Jake West, president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers. With a new federal highway authorization bill due by October 1991, sources of financing are in question.

United States Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner plans to increase federal aid to states, while requiring them to pay more construction costs. He ranks transportation most important for US economic growth. It supports ``every household and every business, our mines and farms, manufacturers and utilities, export trade and national security,'' he says.

New funding planned

Congress and the Office of Management and Budget are considering Secretary Skinner's plan for new authorization of federal funds, effective October 1991. It would provide $85 billion for highways between 1992 and 1996 and command broader state and local financial responsibility.

State and municipal authorities argue that their capital base is shrinking and that increased demands for road funds would over-burden their budgets.

``The federal government is trying to preempt its share of infrastructure costs by putting it on the states ... but even the federal government sees that capacity expansion is not the answer in the long run,'' says Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ``People are used to spending their way out of problems. The approach has been to spend and build. We simply don't have the money for that now.''

``The funding fight between the federal and state authorities becomes irrelevant as public works begin to pay for themselves,'' Mr. Winston says. To alleviate congested road and air travel, he favors charging for, and thus discouraging, strains on the system. Truckers, for example, would be charged a ``pavement damage charge'' designed to reduce road maintenance costs. Airplane takeoff and landing fees would be much higher than normal during the busiest time of the day. Collecting higher fees from drivers who travel during peak hours would reduce the amount of traffic and provide money for mass transit - an alternative to highway rush hour.

Better planning is essential to reducing congestion, given growing demands on transportation, Winston says. He estimates a $3 billion investment to make roads thicker and build more runways at airports would reduce annual maintenance costs for these facilities by $25 billion. Transportation policies in the US are geared toward expansion rather than efficiency, and they can never satisfy demand, he warns.

Boston's Hazardous Artery

Boston's clogged Central Artery typifies poor planning, says James Murphy, an engineer and vice-president with Marsh & McLennan, an insurance firm. The federal government and Massachusetts, contributing 90 percent and 10 percent respectively, will spend $4 billion to rebuild the highway. ``Traffic is so heavy - four to eight hours of ``rush hour'' daily - it's probably the most hazardous piece of road in the Interstate Highway System,'' says Mr. Murphy, an underwriter of construction risk.

``In 1985, when planners looked at the reconstruction of the artery, they were designing for estimated traffic volume in 2010. By 1987, traffic already had reached those levels.'' The Central Artery reconstruction is slated to start next year. Each time the plans are revised, says Murphy, it costs the government millions of dollars. ``The urbanization of our society is growing so fast,'' he says, ``there is an absence of funding to address it.''

It's a matter of national priorities, says Allen Sinai, chief economist of the Boston Company. ``We have trouble focusing on where to put our resources. If we spend $15 billion to $20 billion per year on Iraq, it has to come out of basics like infrastructure repair, education and training.''

US Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, says: ``The new budget agreement really does not help address the ongoing infrastructure deficit. The federal government failed to deal with repair, maintenance, and expansion and has pushed it off to the states.''

Nonetheless, Mr. Hamilton says he is more confident that taxpayers will agree to increased levies toward a specific end, say the improvement of a certain stretch of highway or the reconstruction of a bridge. As commuters experience problems, ``raising taxes for very specific purposes will be easier,'' he says. ``People will understand this.''

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