Shifting Gears on Highways

March 07, 1991

With one-third of all federally aided highways in "poor" or "fair" condition, 41 percent of 577,710 bridges either structurally deficient or obsolete for modern traffic and the cost to keep pace with road and bridge repairs estimated at $150 billion, Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner review of this nation's road-building and mass transit strategy seemed appropriate.

What he came up with, though, contains serious flaws.

He would add "highways of national significance" to the 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System, roughly 120,000 miles of major arteries, and leave 700,000 second-tier roads to the states. With such huge outlays looming for repairs, Mr. Skinner wants to shift focus to repairs and congestion relief for airports, highways, bridges and mass transit. New construction would get less emphasis, with more state flexibility in picking projects and a greater state share of the fiscal responsibility.

But under the Skinner scenario, states would pay much more to build and repair roads. And older urban states such as Maryland would lose road funds due to a new formula that rewards underpopulated but large western states and penalizes heavily populated smaller states. That makes no sense.

There are other problems as well. The Bush administration's $32-billion transportation budget boosts outlays 3.9 percent and shows for the first time a recognition of the realities in subsidies for Amtrak and rural Essential Air Service. What's missing is realism on other mass-transit issues.

The budget cuts mass transit general revenue outlays by $948 million, with inadequate growth in highway trust fund spending to compensate. Once again, the president would end operating subsidies for 147 urban transit systems, including Baltimore's and Washington's. With gridlock threatening the lifeblood of urban areas coast to coast, that's short-sighted. More mass transit is needed, not less. And with truckers pushing for even bigger loads on the roads, despite studies showing the accelerated deterioration they cause, getting traffic off the highways should be an imperative. Without such an effort, the repair bill will just get bigger while safety diminishes.

Mr. Skinner should look farther down the road. Energy efficiency, another critical need, cannot be had simply by asking for it. It will take money to rebuild the crumbling mass transit systems of the East and Midwest, and more still to provide mass-transit alternatives to the West's spreading freeway parking lots. Toll roads, built by the states or the private entrepreneurs the Bush administration favors, cannot fill the bill here.

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