Boston — Rising gasoline prices and voluntary motor fuels conservation efforts are taking their toll on American roads. And steeper taxes may soon be down the pike for millions of motorists.
At a time when street and maintenance costs are at an all-time high, having more than doubled over the past decade, state highway funds -- dependent on gasoline taxes -- are fast running out.
Governors and legislatures in at least 33 states are, or have been, attempting to come to grips with this problem and its bleak alternatives -- sharp cutbacks in road building and repairs or boosts in motor fuel levies.
Within the past four months seven states have raised, either directly or indirectly, their gasoline taxes. Similar proposals are under consideration or are being readied for debate in at least a half-dozen others.
Most states, however, appear to be avoiding gas-tax hikes by either shifting other revenue into their highway funds or scaling down their road construction and maintenance work.
In Vermont, where a $7 million highway fund deficit was projected for the next fiscal year, lawmakers agreed to tap an unused reserve originally appropriated for other purposes. But since this money will be available only once, the state at its 1981 legislative session must seek a more permanent solution to highway maintenance funding.
In neighboring Maine, an impending deficit of $16.7 million in state Transportation Department for the year ending June 30 was partially reduced by cutting back from $7.9 million to $1.4 million in road maintenance aid to the cities and towns.
Although the lawmaking session in Maine ended in April, legislative leaders and Gov. Joseph Brennan are trying to come up with a more permanent arrangement for assuring additional highway funds. If agreement is reached, a special sitting of the senators and representatives may be called early this summer to act on the proposal.
Colorado transferred money from its general-purposes fund to help meet underfunded road-program needs.
Pennsylvania, one of the states still wrestling with an approaching highway fund crisis, faces an estimated $60 million shortfall in the current fiscal year and a $169 million one in fiscal 1981. This is believed to be the largest projected deficit in the nation.
Under consideration there is a proposal by Gov. Richard Thornburgh to switch 6 cents of the state's current 11-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to a levy of 6 percent of the retail price of these motor fuels. This, if approved, would bring in the needed $169 million additional revenue. It would be the second Pennsylvania gas-tax hike in two years, since that levy was raised 2 cents a gallon in 1979.
Four states now base part, or all, of their gasoline tax to a percentage of the pump or wholesale price, rather than the usual cents-per-gallon levy -- Indiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Washington. Similar moves are under consideration in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
In Massachusetts, a special task force recently recommended that the present 8.5 cent-a-gallon gas tax be replaced by a levy of 10 percent on the wholesale price. This, at a $1-a-gallon cost level, would net the state an additional $37 million a year.
New York Gov. Hugh Carey, as part of a comprehensive plan to provide substantial additional funds necessary to keep up with road repair and mass transit funding, is pushing a shift from the current 8-cent-a-gallon gas tax to an 8 percent levy on retail motor fuel prices. This would bring in an additional $240 million.
Boosters of the percentage levy note that the yield from it is bound to grow whenever gas prices rise, thus helping keep the highway fund at least partially abreast of inflation. The per gallon tax cannot do this, since it is keyed to quantity sales instead of price.
A new Kentucky law which takes effect July 1 replaces the state's 9 -cent-a-gallon levy with one pegged to 9 percent of the wholesale price -- up to a maximum equivalent to 13.5 cents a gallon through mid-1982.
Indiana's new gas-tax law, which also takes effect July 1, goes from 8 cents a gallon to 8 percent of the retail gas price, up to a maximum equivalent of 12 cents a gallon this year and 16 cents a gallon in 1982 and thereafter.
The other five states that have increased gas taxes this year are Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Minnesota raised its levy from 9 cents to 11 cents a gallon. Nebraska, one of 11 states to hike its gas tax in 1979, again this year approved a penny-a-gallon boost in the levy from 10.5 to 11.5 cents.
In South Dakota, where lawmakers also added a 1-cent-a-gallon hike last year, the recently approved increase will bring the gas tax from 9 to 12 cents a gallon.
The new Virginia gas tax law hikes the per-gallon levy from 9 cents to 11 cents statewide. Also provided is a 2 percent tax on motor fuels in portions of the state, near Washington D.C., to help fund mass transit.
Wisconsin's 2-cent boost, to 9 cents a gallon, falls short of what Gov. Lee Dreyfus sought in his proposed transportation program. It will yield an estimated $45 million to $50 million of what is needed to meet the current anticipated road-funding shortfall.