Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena will unveil a new National Highway System here today at a distinctly non-highway location - Union Station rail terminal - signaling the Clinton administration's commitment to an integrated intermodal system of roads, railroads, ports and waterways.

Though it is to be part of a larger system, the National Highway System is critical to the commercial success of the nation's transport system, concentrating spending of $6.5 billion annually on capacity, efficiency and congestion-reduction proj- ects.The designated NHS routes will reach within five miles of 95 percent of U.S. shippers and carry 75 percent of truck traffic.

Traditionally, highway funding is earmarked for projects benefiting a particular city or location, instead of improving overall system efficiency.

Congress will have to decide by Sept. 30, 1995, which roughly 155,000 miles of roads will be in the new system. Some $13 billion has been earmarked for national highway system routes under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (Istea), but the money cannot be spent during the 1996 and 1997 fiscal years unless the NHS is completed.

Once Congress designates the routes, the $13 billion could only be spent on the new system, though states or local governments could tap other act-funding sources about twice that size for projects such as bridges or air-pollution reduction, sources said.

Government officials say DOT's map omits some key port access roads, but it does stress strengthening North-South commercial corridors in light of the North American Free Trade Agreement and chronic border-crossing delays.

"The backbone is a good analogy for NHS," said John Collins, senior vice president of the American Trucking Associations (ATA). "You may want to manicure your fingernails, but if you have skeletal problems, you take care of them first."

"We have a good understanding of the air, rail and highway modes, but we haven't put it all together," Michael P. Huerta, director of DOT's Office of Intermodalism told an American Association of Port Authorities meeting. "If you can't say where we are as a (transportation) system, we are in no position to say where we should go."

Congress is likely to change and expand the map. DOT will seek the right to alter Congress' final effort, Mr. Huerta said.

Less than 2 percent of the system will be new roads. Overall, it will cover 4 percent of U.S. highways, including interstates, on a map whose final version could be as much as 15 percent above or below the 155,000-mile target set by Congress in Istea.

Port officials are watching closely, since inclusion will open the door to Istea funding for access projects that are encountering tough sledding with local planning groups which set spending priorities.

Ports are arguing that road and terminal improvements qualify for funding

from air-pollution reduction or transportation alternative projects.

"We're disappointed with implementation of Istea at the state and local level," said Erik Stromberg, president of AAPA. "We're dealing with (highway and transit) folks who have been working the system for years and years."

Several officials at AAPA's conference said ports seeking funds must strengthen ties with local planning groups and demonstrate how projects benefit the regional economy, job base and air quality. Part of the ports' problem is Istea expanded the number of competitors for federal dollars without expanding the pot.

Projects seeking Istea funding are advancing in Oakland and Houston, using the argument that air pollution will be reduced by taking local trucks off the road and moving rail operations into a joint intermodal terminal used by everyone, not just one or two carriers who are entrenched now.

NHS spawned a support group, even before today's unveiling. Among those backing the concept are ATA; American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials; Highway Users Federation; National Industrial Transportation League; National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

NHS also has the cautious endorsement of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a coalition of public interest, environmental and community groups that advocate alternative transportation projects.

State groups recommended roads for NHS designation, though the process wasn't uniform, according to federal and trade group officials. Some states left out port-access roads, while others included rail mileage or ferry routes.

"The National Highway System is at the heart of the multimodal national transportation network," said Francis B. Francois, director of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. "It is an important strategic investment in our future."


The National Highway System, which will be announced today, will:

* Modernize bridges, widen highways, create High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and volume-sensitive traffic signals.

* Try to strengthen commerical north-south corridors to forestall gridlock as crossborder traffic grows under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

* Concentrate on improving access to railroads, ports and waterways. Designated routes will reach within fime miles of 95 percent of U.S. shippers and carry 75 percent of the truck traffic.

* Improve highway access for about 72 million more Americans as the NHS connects communities in rural America.