Boston — Smoke-belching clunkers and thousands of other air--polluting cars soon may be forced to clean up their acts or get off the road. Despite much dragging of political brakes, lawmakers in more and more states - threatened with the loss of millions of dollars of federal highway funds - are moving forward with auto-emission-inspection programs.
But federal officials are running out of patience. On Jan. 31 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned more than 200 counties in 33 states that they had better get going with clean air controls. This comes at a time when:
* Only 14 states - four of them in the past few weeks - are in at least partial compliance with federal clean-air standards through mandatory checks of pollution levels from vehicle exhaust systems.
* At least two more are slated to be on line later this year, including Massachusetts as of April 1.
* Four other states are moving in that direction.
* And another 10 have antipollution measures on their books but have missed the scheduled starting date and are making little or no progress.
Officials in some states are marking time, hoping Congress will relax or even eliminate auto-emission-inspection requirements.
Prospects for such a change are uncertain, and, in the absence of further orders, the EPA is preparing to enforce the regulations, including recommended sanctions for noncompliance.
Meanwhile, legislation is in the works in at least nine states, plus the District of Columbia, to initiate emission-inspection provisions or enforce previously established ones, according to Katherine Yoe of the Highway Users Federation.
While declining to speculate what the fate of any of these proposals might be , she notes that in a dozen states, several of which have emission-inspection programs in place or on the way, efforts are under way to move in just the opposite direction.
Legislation to repeal emission inspections is under consideration by lawmakers in Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Yet aides of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis make it clear their state's April 1 target date will be met. Some $300 million in road-construction and maintenance aid to the Bay State are at stake. They note well the loss of federal highway and sewer project funds in California and Pennsylvania for failure to implement emission-control programs.
Massachusetts plans to tie the electronic-recorded tailpipe sniff in with the regular vehicle safety inspection of tires, brakes, headlights, horn, and windshields.
Cars built prior to 1968 are exempt from the emissions inspections, since they were manufactured before catalytic converters were installed by factories.
Boosters of the Bay State program anticipate that the $10 annual inspection fee will not impose a hardship on motorists since, based on the experience in the states that have such emissions, 85 percent of the cars checked can be expected to pass.
Only states or sections of states with clean-air problems, including all thickly settled areas, must have auto-emission-control programs.
The nation's first, and one of the most successful exhaust-check programs, began in New Jersey in February 1974.
To help save New Jersey money and reduce inconvenience to motorists, the mandatory inspections, which had been annual, were changed to biennial last year. Except for California, where a similar setup goes into effect in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and several other metropolitan areas in April 1984, car-emission inspections are yearly, usually on a staggered monthly basis.
New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and soon Massachusetts have the only statewide coverage. Other areas with such programs in operation are Washington, D.C., and one or more areas in Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.
Other states with such measures on the books, but either stalled or otherwise not yet on line, include portions of California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
The price range for the inspections range from $2.50 in New Jersey to $10 in Washington State.
Although California lawmakers last year finally enacted an exhaust-test program for areas that fail to meet EPA clean-air standards, the state has had $ 370 million in federal funds withheld.
Perhaps similarly prodded to get on with its program is Pennsylvania, which was supposed to have emissions-control inspections in the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown-Easton areas last May. This delay has cost the state, at least temporarily, some $91 million in road-building dollars.