The government raised the ceilings on travel allowances for 2.1 million federal employes yesterday, eliminating the $25-a-night motel reimbursement rate years after the typical $25-a-night room had vanished.

"We're getting the rates back in line with the costs of food and lodging," said Terence C. Golden, head of the General Services Administration. The reason is "fairness; it's as simple as that."

The cost to the taxpayer will be about $90 million, a 5 percent increase in costs if travel continues unabated, Golden said.

The GSA, in regulations sent to the Federal Register yesterday, increased lodging rates for most U.S. cities and modified the way meals and incidental expenses are paid for the first and last day of travel.

Federal workers traveling to about 150 new cities -- in addition to 375 named last year -- will be reimbursed for lodging costs over $35. These range from $36 for Owensboro, Ky., to $103 per night in New York City.

Golden said this will allow employes to stay in "moderate business-class hotels."

For Washington, D.C., the maximum lodging rate went from $79 to $84 a night. Hotel and motel costs must be backed up by receipts. A flat rate of $33 for meals and incidental expenses is paid here and in other large cities. The meal rate is $25 in smaller cities and rural areas. Receipts for meals are not required.

"Nobody is going to get rich on this program," Golden said.

The administrator said GSA has been "very aggressively going out and contracting with hotels to get the best rates for the federal traveler, especially in markets where there has been overbuilding."

Gary Kowalczyk, head of GSA's office of policy analysis, said government rates are 11 percent below corporate rates, on average.

Even so, federal travelers to places such as Rome, N.Y., home of Griffiss Air Force Base, complained they couldn't find a room under the $25 ceiling. And the Rome Chamber of Commerce complained the city was being discriminated against in comparison to other relatively nearby cities such as Albany, where the special rate is now $59 a night.

Federal employes, such as meat and poultry inspectors who travel continually in what GSA had designated as "low-cost" areas with the $25-a-night rate, were especially vocal on the issue.

GSA proposed increasing the rate to $35 last November based on staff research. The Office of Management and Budget asked for a professional study, but backed off on a further request for a survey of all 2,600 "low-cost" counties.

The new $35-a-night rate for low-cost cities was cleared by OMB on Wednesday, and will go into effect Aug. 1.

New rules for calculating the rate for meals and incidentals on the first and last days of travel also are effective then.

Until now, federal workers got only half the meal allowance on the first and last days of a trip on the theory that they spent part of the day at home.

"Nobody picked this up when we published rules a year ago," said Golden, "but people tend to leave early in the morning and get back late the next day" on many trips. "This meant that, even in the high-cost cities, the per diem {for meals and incidentals} was $17.50 a day. It didn't cover the costs."

Under the new rules, the day will be divided into quarters and workers reimbursed for each quarter of a day on the road.

In this region, the new lodging rates are: Annapolis, $70; Baltimore, $50; Columbia, $87; Ocean City, $82; Charlottesville, $51; Manassas, $50; Richmond, $54; Warrenton, $38 and Williamsburg, $60.