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The rugged cost of tolerating rutted roads

Until the state began resurfacing it, the main highway from Boston to Cape Cod commanded pleasant vistas of bays, forests, hills -- and hubcaps.

The gutters of the Southeast Expressway were littered with them, jolted from passing cars by the deteriorating paving.

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They were yet another symptom of the decay of America's highways and bridges -- a phenomenon which, in the past year, has become increasingly well-documented.

Also widely publicized is the high cost of repairing that damage -- pegged by the US Department of Transportation at $33 billion for Interstate highways, $500 billion for nonurban highways, and another $47.6 billion for bridges.

Less well known, however, is the cost to the traveling public of enduring, rather than repairing, this deterioration.

How much does a hubcap cost? As much as $110 for a 13-inch wire wheel cover, says Frank Hill of Jannell Ford and Peugeot in suburban Weymouth, Mass.

The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington-based, nonprofit organization that researches transportation issues, assesses the average costs for other pothole-related repairs: front-end alignments, $25-$30; replacing broken rear shock absorbers, $30; and buying a pair of radial tires, $200.

Recently, in a series of state-by-state studies, TRIP pulled together figures on the high cost of bad roads. Its latest study, analyzing the economic benefits of a highway repair program for Massachusetts, follows similar ones done in Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states.

No one denies that road-repair costs are steep. In Massachusetts, whose road system is older than that of most states and hammered by tough New England winters, some 74 percent of the roads and 49 percent of the bridges need rehabilitation, according to TRIP figures. TRIP research director Sally Thompson says the national average is 64 percent for roads and 44 percent for bridges.

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But the TRIP report on the Bay State was funded by the Construction Industries of Massachusetts, whose members stand to benefit from an upgraded repair program. And not everyone agrees with its conclusions.

''You've got to remember who funded the study,'' says James Kerasiotes, assistant secretary for the state's Department of Public Works. ''The Massachusetts transportation network is in phenomenal condition,'' he adds.

But he agrees that ''we're not spending enough.'' The state now spends only $ 225.6 million a year on the problem - less than half the $497.5 million a year which, TRIP says, must be spent over the next 10 years.

TRIP says the economic benefits of a massive road-repair program would substantially reduce its actual cost. Savings would come from:

Lower costs to individual motorists. In addition to savings in repairs, the report notes that poor roads can increase automobile fuel consumption up to 56 percent. In Massachusetts, where motorists drove 19.5 billion vehicle miles last year over substandard roads, that comes to an extra $168 per driver per year.

More construction-related jobs. TRIP says its program would produce 7,151 new jobs. With July unemployment figures showing just over 1 million construction workers out of work across the nation, the prospect of more construction jobs would be a welcome addition, adding another $125 million to Massachusetts' payroll.

More revenue to state coffers. The increased payroll would generate an additional $10.8 million in state income taxes and $32 million in corporate taxes and fees - and would save $14.2 million in unemployment payments.

More corporate spending. Corporations involved in repairs (many of which are members of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, the trade organization that sponsored the TRIP study) would spend an additional $115 million each year for road-building materials and equipment.

Overall, TRIP estimates that these savings, though they would not cover the full cost of rehabilitation, would reduce the $497.5 million annual bill by about 31 percent, to $344 million.

In the last 18 months, says TRIP, some 30 states have addressed the road-repair problem by such measures as increasing state gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, or allocating more funds from general revenues.

But that, he says, has added only $3 billion to the $19 billion spent on all US road and bridge repairs. He says that $19 billion will have to be doubled to eliminate the repair backlog in the next decade.

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