U.S. plan drafted to expand highways 5-year proposal gives state aid, allows tolls

November 23, 1990|By John H. Cushman Jr. | John H. Cushman Jr.,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has drafted an ambitious five-year plan for expanding highway construction, broadening the network of major national roads, providing incentives to reduce congestion and allowing states to charge tolls on more highways.

Proposed legislation that would provide at least $85 billion in federal highway aid to the states from 1992 to 1996 has been written at the Transportation Department, where senior officials call it their main legislative effort for the coming year.

Draft summaries of the plan, which have been circulated among state officials and industry groups, show that the administration's proposal would expand the mileage of roads eligible for federal aid.

The proposal would also steadily increase federal spending on those roads, using as much as half the recent increase of 5 cents a gallon in the tax on gasoline.

In keeping with efforts by the Reagan and Bush administrations to force states to bear more responsibility for public services, the highway proposal would also decrease the percentage of the construction costs covered by federal aid.

That would require states to match federal grants with higher contributions of their own, forcing some of them to raise their taxes on gasoline, find another source of money or make other difficult budget choices.

Federal highway legislation is renewed every five years, and each time the law affects virtually every community and citizen.

This revision is considered the most important one in decades, coming as the 43,000-mile Interstate Highway System nears completion and as many states are short of cash.

Shifting more of the costs to the states has already provoked debate.

In a speech in New York last week, Representative Norman Y. Mineta, D-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee that will write legislation on highways and mass transit next year, called that policy "the wrong way to go."

The new proposal would also change the way federal aid is allocated.

While the bulk of federal highway spending has for decades gone to the interstates, the proposal seeks to make more money available for upgrading primary highways, such as U.S. Route 1, which runs roughly parallel to Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida.

Both types of roads are included in the plan's newly defined network, the National Highway System, which comprises about 150,000 miles of roadways deemed crucial because they handle about 75 percent of all mileage driven by commercial vehicles.

Under the proposal, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the costs of interstates and primary highways alike, compared with 90 percent for interstates and 80 percent for primary highways under the current system.

Under the new proposal, less important roads such as two-lane, open-access state highways, would get only 60 percent of the cost paid by the federal government.

Thomas D. Larson, the federal highway administrator, said the exact amount of money to be spent was "not yet formalized."

He said it was going "to get the most intense scrutiny," both by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has not yet approved the Transportation Department's proposal, and Congress, which would consider it next year.

Among the newly disclosed details in the administration plan's are these:

* A proposal would revoke the exemption of alternative motor fuels from federal taxes. A tax on the fuels, mainly the blend of grain alcohol and gasoline known as gasohol, would raise $600 million a year for highway spending. This proposal is certain to be opposed by lawmakers from grain-producing states.

* The plan would emphasize reducing congestion and pollution. It would require major cities to establish detailed transportation improvement programs addressing land use, mass transit and congestion. It would allow some highway grants to be spent on mass transit projects, or the other way around.

And it would set up special funds to "encourage innovative, immediate-action solutions to congestion and air quality problems." The federal government would pay 60 percent of the costs of these programs. Officials said this kind of feature recognized that more roads might invite added traffic, paradoxically encouraging pollution and congestion, if all forms of transportation were not taken into account. Details of the bill regarding mass transit were not disclosed.

* The proposal makes clear that the administration would allow states to use federal money to build new toll roads or to improve existing ones. In the past, this has generally been prohibited. The federal government would contribute up to 35 percent of the costs of the toll roads, which are likely to appear in heavily traveled areas.

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