NEW YORK -- Construction activity remained weak in September with contracts valued at $231.47 billion on a seasonally adjusted annual rate, slightly more than the 1990 low of $229.46 billion recorded in August, F.W. Dodge reported this week.

By contrast, contracting for new construction at this time last year was about 25 percent stronger than the current rate and stood at its all-time peak as measured by Dodge, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc.

Nonbuilding construction, including public works and utilities, was the soft spot in the industry, declining 10 percent to $43.15 billion from $47.79 billion in August.

But nonresidential building rebounded 8 percent in September to $83.59 billion from $77.47 billion in August, while housing held steady at its recently depressed level: $104.73 billion vs. $104.2 billion last month, Dodge said.

At the end of nine months, unadjusted 1990 construction contracting trailed the value of contracts for the year-ago period by 10 percent -- $185.60 billion vs. $206.03 billion -- the widest margin of the year, the construction information service said.

"The construction sector, which has often served as a leading indicator of general business activity, seems to be supporting the growing belief that the economy is heading into recession, or may already be there," said George Christie, vice president and chief economist for Dodge.

"Starts of new construction projects have fallen for four consecutive quarters, leaving most parts of the country far behind last year's pace," Christie said.

"As work in progress is brought to completion, spending and employment in this key industry is drying up," he added.