Debate Over How to Fund Transit Shifts into Drive
By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service
BOSTON -- The debate over whether to fund local infrastructure maintenance annually or with a multi-year bill appears poised to resurface now that spring is around the corner and the Committee on Transportation has started its work this session.
The committee met Tuesday to consider a $200 million bill proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker. After testimony from Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, representatives for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, an organization representing the 351 cities and towns across the state, again asked lawmakers instead to pursue a multi-year Chapter 90 bonding bill that would give municipalities a longer runway for local projects.
Extending the bill out several years, supporters say, would allow municipalities to plan projects more efficiently, particularly because the amount they receive in state support for road repair can vary annually.
The bill Baker filed (H 69) would allocate $200 million for Chapter 90 and another $200 million for rail improvement projects that fall under the Department of Transportation’s five-year capital investment plan.
It also seeks approval for $1.5 billion in highway infrastructure improvements. The state only covers 20 percent of the cost of certain projects covered by a federal program and the U.S. government covers the remainder, but only if there is authorization for the full amount at the state level.
Pollack suggested during the hearing that the administration is open to a multi-year Chapter 90 plan.
“We are following the lead of the Legislature,” she said. “We’re very open to talking to the Legislature if there’s a desire to do a multi-year authorization of the Chapter 90 program.”
In 2018, the Senate approved three-year, $600 million proposal before conference committee negotiators settled on a single year, $200 million package, similar to what Baker proposed in the latest bill.
Sen. Joe Boncore, co-chairman of the committee, could not be reached immediately Tuesday afternoon for comment on whether he would pursue another multi-year package.
Co-chairman Rep. William Straus said he expects the House to support a one-year bill once again.
“I will say, on behalf of the House, just like last year, I don’t think there’s any inclination we would do a multi-year Chapter 90 bill,” Straus said. “You want a multi-year, perhaps even bigger Chapter 90 bill -- what exactly are you going to do to help pay for that?”
The state often passes multi-year borrowing bills governing its capital spending in areas like transportation, open space and the environment, housing, and general government infrastructure maintenance and construction. Such bills had also been common for road repairs until about 2008, according to the MMA.
Investment in transportation is a frequent topic of conversation on Beacon Hill, particularly in the wake of a report that the state will face an $8.4 billion revenue shortfall for infrastructure projects over the next decade. Even MassDOT’s own research indicates the department will not reach its target for percentage of roads in a state of good repair at current spending levels, according to Pollack.
“I hesitate to agree with the statement that things are getting worse,” Pollack said during the hearing. “I think they’re not getting better at rate we would like to see or at the rate that would achieve specified targets in specified timeframes. But I do believe we’ve been working really hard to bend the curve so that they are getting better, just more slowly than we want.”
Robertson’s remarks on behalf of MMA also called for an overall increase to the Chapter 90 funding the state allocates every year. Additional money has on occasion been made available -- an extra $40 million was paid from surplus revenue at the end of the last fiscal year -- but Robertson said the typical baseline figure has not kept up with inflation in recent years.
In a 2018 survey, the MMA found that cities and towns face costs of about $685 million per year for roadway maintenance, but Robertson acknowledged that would not be a realistic funding level. Instead, he asked for a 50 percent per year increase to what Baker has proposed, particularly as costs continue to rise.
“The economy is really good right now,” said Franklin Director of Public Works Robert Cantoreggi, who accompanied MMA legislative director John Robertson at the Tuesday hearing. “Five or six years ago when there was no private work out there, no subdivisions being built, I was getting a lot of good prices. Now that the economy is good, I have to pay a lot more because they have options.”
Pollack told the committee that the state often pays out more than the $200 million figure each year to reimburse cities and towns for maintenance and that several other programs offer separate avenues of funding.
The committee did not take any action on Baker’s funding bill Tuesday.