States reluctantly hike gas taxes to pay for overdue road repairs

US roadways, from the frost belt to the Sunbelt, are wearing out at a faster rate than they are being replaced or repaired. Of the 1.98 million miles of paved streets and highways across the nation, 53 percent are in need of major repairs or replacement, according to the Washington D.C. based Road Information Program.

As recently as January 1980, a similar survey by this group, supported by high-way-construction and vehicle-manufacturer organizations, rated only 43 percent of all streets in fair to very poor condition.

This worsening situation, with its frequent, bumpy reminders for motorists, is a growing concern to state highway officials and an increasing number of lawmakers.

At a time when the push is on for lower taxes at all levels of government, and the US government is cutting back on road-building funds, inflation-squeezed states reluctantly are boosting their levies on gasoline and other motor fuels to fund road-improvement projects.

Within the past 3 1/2 years 32 states have hiked this tax at least once, including 22 during the past nine months.

Similar measures to help fuel road construction and maintenance programs are pending in at least two other states. Michigan and New Jersey. And renewed efforts to up gas taxes are expected next year in several others, some of which have been able to postpone even modest hikes by raising motor vehicle registration and driver license fees.

Although most states continue to base their gasoline and diesel fuel taxes on the traditional per gallon basis, eight states -- Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington -- peg their levies to a percentage of either the average wholesale or retail price. And a ninth -- Arizona -- is switching to that system.

Some increases are substantial. Nevada, where the tax stayed at 6 cents a gallon for 26 years, approved a 4.5 cent boost this year plus another 1.5 cents in 1982, bringing the levy to 12 cents.

The next-biggest increase of the year is 4 cents a gallon in Wisconsin, where the tax became 13 cents a gallon.

A hike in Oregon from 7 to 8 cents could be followed by similar penny boosts in each of the next three years if voters give their approval next May.

The recently approved California law, upping the gas tax from 7 to 9 cents per gallon, will not take effect until 1983.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, although retaining the state's 11 cents a gallon motor fuels levy, added a 3.5 percent franchise tax at the wholesale level for oil companies. It is expected to result in an average 3 to 4 cent increase in gasoline pump prices.

With its latest increase, the third within a decade, New Hampshire now has the nation's highest motor fuels tax -- 14 cents a gallon. The lowest is in oil-rich Texas, where it remains at 5 cents.

Joining Texas in not increasing motor fuels taxes are the District of Columbia and 17 other states -- Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

Most of these have helped rescue shrinking highway funds with increased fees for truckers or other road-users.

Proposals for gas-tax boosts or shifts to a variable levy pegged to prices were under consideration by legislators in all but a handful of the states in 1981.

The 1.04 million miles of cracked and potholed roadways across the US includes paved traffic routes of all types ranging from city streets to expressways, according to Edward Moore, research director of the Roads Information Program.

Reconstructing or resurfacing of worn or obsolete roads would cost $220 billion in 1981 dollars. Repaving some 850,000 miles of roads rated "fair" would cost an average of $125,000 per mile, while average reconstruction costs for the 190,000 miles of roads graded either "poor" or "very poor" would be $500 ,000 per mile.

Current efforts fall far short of the mark, asserts Mr. Moore, who notes that last year all levels of government spent "but $36 billion on road building and resurfacing." To catch up with road construction needs, his organization is recommending that "in each of the next 10 years an additional $22 billion be spent." This would bring the annual federal, state, and local repaving and reconstruction cost to $58 billion.

This does not include rebuilding or widening of highway bridges, which the Federal Highway Administration estimates would cost $43.38 billion.

The federal gas tax, which has been 4 percent for the past 22 years, took in an estimated $7.34 billion during fiscal 1981.

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