The Great New England Trucking Fee War seems to be winding down.
Now that the six New England states are meeting to resolve the conflict over charges to out-of-state truckers, some see the possible solutions serving as a prototype for truck-regulation plans across the United States.
Last spring Vermont imposed a $15 entry fee on out-of-state trucks crossing its boundaries. The idea was to raise money for the lean highway maintenance fund. The reason: gasoline taxes, which generally go into the maintenance fund, weren't filling state coffers as full as they were expected to. And farming interests had succeeded in blocking a tax on diesel fuel, leaving Vermont the only state without one.
Since it is sparsely populated and lacks an important air and rail freight network, Vermont is heavily dependent on trucking. So this source of revenue seemed promising.
That is when the problems began. Neighboring New Hampshire took offense at the entry fee and retaliated with one of its own. Then Maine got into the act with a $40 annual road-use fee for out-of-state truckers. New Hampshire, which actually has a law that says ''We will do to other states what they do to us,'' replied in kind again.
Meanwhile, Connecticut was trying to hike its annual user fee for out-of-state truckers from $5 to $40. Rhode Island followed suit with a $10 levy. The matter was rapidly building to a head.
At roughly this point, the American Trucking Association (ATA) interceded and challenged the Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut fees on grounds that they were discriminatory against out-of-staters. The Maine fee was struck down by a superior court, angering state highway officials in the process. The Vermont case is still pending. The Connecticut fee was lowered to $10, pending an official review of the matter. But the states still were at odds.
What began to defuse the situation, according to some of those involved, was a resolution drafted last November by Massachusetts legislators that said, in effect: We are against entry fees in principle. But if other states are going to impose them, we see no choice but to follow suit.
Since then, legislative leaders from the concerned states have met twice to discuss what they call a compact on trucking fees, with at least one more meeting scheduled later this month. At year's end, the group agreed in principle to a four-point solution to the problem:
* A prohibition against entry fees.
* A truck-use fee of $40 per state. The fee would be collected in the state where each truck is based and would be paid to each of the other states in which the truck operates. Thus, a Boston-based trucking firm that services all other New England states would pay $240 per truck per year to the state of Massachusetts, which would forward $40 each to Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
* A common system for reporting and collecting diesel fuel taxes. These, too, would be payable to the home state and a percentage forwarded to each of the others.
* Other regulatory changes to make enforcement of trucking laws uniform throughout the region.
Legislators working on the compact tend to be optimistic that it will be ratified by all six states. Says Stephen Morse (R), speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives: ''Obviously, Vermont caused a lot of these problems. That's why I am involved.''
Speaker Morse sees other regions following the New England lead. ''If we get in on the ground floor, then we'll have more say,'' he claims. ''Other states that come along later will have to accept our rules.''
Adds Sen. Thom Serrani (D) of Connecticut, whose state is the heavily traveled highway corridor between New York and Boston:
''We can't have the New England states feuding with each other. We've already lost enough jobs and economic growth to the Sunbelt, so we have to come to an agreement that will be fair to the states and fair to the truckers. The trucks have to use the roads, and the roads are of no use to them if they're in bad shape.''
A representative of the ATA declined to comment on the proposed New England compact except to say that ''it sounds like a takeoff on the International Registration Plan.'' That is a widely accepted but complex system under which taxes are paid on each vehicle in proportion to the time the vehicle operates in a given state. If a truck spends 50 percent of its time in Massachusetts, 25 percent in Rhode Island, and 25 percent in New Hampshire, its owner would pay half of the registration fee due to the Bay State and one-quarter of it to each of the other two.
Otherwise, the ATA representative said, ''The industry has long supported the concept of fuel taxes and registration - the so-called two-structure tax. But we are opposed to the entry fee.''