The major achievement of former Transportation secretary Drew Lewis was the selling job he did in 1982 to persuade Congress and President Reagan that the nation's highways were falling apart and that more money was needed to fix them.
The result was a 5-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax, labeled a "user fee" to gain the president's blessing, that Congress hustled through during a lame-duck session in November 1982.
The proceeds from the Surface Transportation Assistance Act have been pouring out of the federal Highway Trust Fund into state highway and bridge construction programs ever since. More than 30 states have raised gasoline taxes to raise highway money for their own projects and to match federal aid.
The results are beginning to show up in one of the Federal Highway Administration's most obscure documents, "The Status of the Nation's Highways." That congressionally mandated report is issued every two years, and has consistently been a compendium of gloom. Its most recent version, however, strikes a somewhat brighter note, but does not suggest that the problem of deteriorating highways and bridges is solved.
The interstate highway system, which carries about 20 percent of all road traffic in the United States, "experienced the most rapid deterioration but still had the highest percentage of good pavement of all systems," according to the report.
Part of that rapid deterioration is a statistical anomaly that occurs because new pavement ages more rapidly than older stretches. The report also notes the contribution heavier truck traffic makes to interstate deterioration.
On other highways, the report says, "Pavement condition has generally remained constant" since 1978, the last year covered in the previous report.
FHwA Administrator Ray A. Barnhart, in a Transportation Department press release, said that "one of the major findings is that the steady decline in pavement quality which had characterized previous status reports has been halted. While it is still too early to see significant changes in highway conditions on a broad national scale, data indicate that, during 1983, pavement improvements . . . were sufficient to bring us into at least a neutral position with regard to pavement deterioration."
DWINDLING ENGINEERS . . . Another report commissioned by the same law says that the people who brought us the world's finest highway system are rapidly leaving the scene. A National Research Council committee predicted a "dramatic generational shift" in the management of the nation's highways and transit agencies in the next five years.
During that time, one-third of all professional engineers working for state or county transportation departments are expected to retire, the study found. It urged state and local governments to begin recruiting students and encouraging them to pursue transportation careers.
BULLET TRAIN UPDATE . . . Despite the demise last fall of a grand plan to build a privately financed and operated "bullet train" from Los Angeles to San Diego and the perennial problems Amtrak has had getting money from Congress, interest in high-speed passenger rail systems remains high.
The Federal Railroad Administration recently announced grants totaling $740,000 for planning high-speed rail systems in Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Ohio planners have been looking at a statewide system of fast trains to connect that state's many big cities; Missouri is looking at its central corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis; Pennsylvania is interested in a Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh line, and Texas has Texas-size plans for Houston to Dallas.
New York State, Vermont and Quebec recently completed a feasibility study for trains traveling up to 185 mph between New York and Montreal via Vermont and found such a plan "potentially implementable." The study recommends determining the interest of developers and the financial community.