Americans who want better highways, bridges and mass transit systems in the future could pay for them through higher state and local taxes under the federal transportation program proposed yesterday by President Bush.
The five-year, $105 billion administration proposal calls for the federal government to increase spending on highways and transit without raising taxes. But the federal share of the costs of projects would drop significantly in most programs, shifting more of the burden onto state and local governments, which, in turn, may ask taxpayers to make up the difference.
Kicking off what is expected to be a long and contentious effort in Congress this year to enact a new program, Bush and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner told transportation industry leaders yesterday that the president's plan was a good starting point.
"With this legislation, America is on the road to expanded productivity, more jobs and a strengthened infrastructure," Bush said.
Skinner sought a major push from the president, despite Bush's focus on the Persian Gulf War. The highway plan, which would largely replace 35-year-old legislation that built the 43,000-mile federal interstate highway system, is one of the administration's major domestic initiatives. The program, like the current one, would be financed largely from a trust fund consisting of revenue from motor fuels taxes.
Drivers can expect no significant increase in the number of highways built, officials said, but would see more repairs and widening of existing roads that may decrease congestion. Urban areas such as Washington could expect to see more rush-hour carpool lanes, toll roads on federal highways and high-tech traffic control systems that warn drivers of problems.
Users of buses and trains could expect higher fares, industry officials said. Big-city transit systems such as Washington's Metro could no longer use federal money to subsidize their operating costs, and the percentage share of federal aid for capital costs would be reduced. Financially strapped transit systems may ask for more money from riders and the local governments that support them, officials said.
Congress probably will alter the proposal. Lawmakers and industry officials said yesterday they liked parts of the plan, such as ending most categorical grants to states and cities and allowing them to spend federal transportation money as they choose. But the officials complained that shifting the burden to the states is unfair because states already have been raising fuel taxes for transportation.
Skinner said, "We find that if the federal government has a somewhat smaller share, and state and local governments have a somewhat greater share than they have traditionally, you get better projects identified and built . . . on time and on budget because local officials are not looking for what I call free money" from Washington.
Shifting more of the costs of federal programs to the states is part of a pattern begun in the early years of the Reagan administration and now continued under Bush. The Reagan administration ended revenue sharing, for example, and consolidated social service block grants, leaving the states to take on more of the costs.
Some congressional Democrats and industry officials said they want to increase the amount of federal spending, noting that some experts believe the nation will need between $1 trillion and $3 trillion to repair its crumbling roads and bridges. About $14 billion is spent annually on highways now; the proposal calls for an increase to $20 billion by 1996.
But Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), who attended the White House ceremony, said yesterday that it may be difficult for Congress to increase spending on highways and transit, in part because "no one understands what the war is going to cost us."
Under Bush's proposal, the federal government would spend $87.7 billion over five years on a restructured highway system that includes a new, 150,000-mile National Highway System consisting of the current interstate system and other important roads.
A second system of 700,000 miles of urban and rural roads also would be created; states could decide within this program to spend federal money on roads or transit. A bridge program would provide money to fix existing spans. The national highway system would receive a higher share of federal money, but in nearly all cases, the federal contribution would drop.
Federal spending on transit would rise from $3.2 billion a year to $3.3 billion by 1996, but the federal share also would be slashed for most projects.
"This bill commits an enormous amount of money to building more highways that will carry more single-occupant vehicles," complained Alan Kiepper, president of the New York City transit authority.
Skinner said, "In these times of tough federal budgetary considerations, for mass transit to continue to rely on the federal government to carry all of their problems . . . is unrealistic."