From the Beacon, April 2018
It has been a brutal end-of-winter. Forget the old expression about March (“in like a lion, out like a lamb”) – the whole month seemed to roar. And snow and ice removal budgets weren’t the only casualties of our multi-nor’easter pummeling; incessant plowing and scraping has taken a toll on our roadways. We should expect more potholes than crocuses when spring finally blooms.
Potholes are symptoms of excessive wear, tear, stress and aging. The weaker the road, the greater the damage, and this leads to faster deterioration, which leads to even more potholes, which leads to even faster deterioration, and so on. The only solution to this destructive cycle is to break the pattern by providing cities and towns with adequate resources to rebuild our streets and make them more durable. Unfortunately, this is not our current path.
Cities and towns desperately need an increase in funds in order to maintain 30,000 miles of local roads and bridges in a state of good repair. With a tightly capped property tax, communities rely heavily on the Chapter 90 program – the program that is supposed to share gas tax revenues with cities and towns, so that local officials can improve our vital infrastructure, which leads to improved quality of life, ensures public safety and stimulates economic development. We continue to ask the governor and Legislature for an on-time, multi-year, $300 million per year Chapter 90 bond bill so that cities and towns can begin the construction season on time.
The measure now moving through the process, however, is a one-year, $200 million bond authorization. A detailed analysis by the MMA in 2014 documented that cities and towns across the state need to spend at least $639 million every year to maintain and bring 30,000 miles of local roads into a state of good repair. Because construction inflation has risen faster than the CPI, we estimate that the cost is now very close to $700 million a year. Currently, municipalities spend far less because of inadequate resources and because, for most cities and towns, Chapter 90 is the main or sole source of funds for local road construction and repair.
A $300 million authorization, with an inflation-based adjustment, will enable cities and towns to begin to properly fund local road improvement plans, including pursuing a state of good repair that is a best practice standard for maintaining capital assets.
A multi-year bill is important, as this would significantly improve the ability to plan at the local level, by adding predictability and certainty regarding the amount and the timing. When Chapter 90 funding levels differ from year to year, it is difficult for communities to plan multi-year projects or to know how many years it will take to implement a comprehensive pavement management plan. Because a multi-year bill is best, we have asked that the authorization be indexed to account for inflation, in order to protect against the loss of purchasing power.
The Chapter 90 program shares transportation revenues in a fair way in every corner of the Commonwealth, and lets taxpayers know that their local needs are recognized. Chapter 90 is the most effective and efficient way to ensure regional equity and regional access to state transportation tax revenues.
Further, investing more in Chapter 90 funding to improve the quality of local roads will actually save taxpayers millions of dollars a year. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, once a local road is in a state of good repair, every dollar invested to keep it properly maintained will save $6 to $10 in avoided repair costs that become necessary to rebuild the road when it fails due to a lack of maintenance. This is a powerful argument in favor of increasing Chapter 90 funding to the $300 million level, because a lower level of investment in the short term will certainly cost taxpayers much more in the long term.
In order to ensure that cities and towns can begin the construction season on time, state law sets April 1 as the date for official and real notification of Chapter 90 allocations (not the preliminary notices that went out a few weeks ago, because communities can only borrow or award contracts after receiving their official notices). Ironically, the March storms delayed the legislative process, and April 1 is arriving without final enactment of a Chapter 90 bill.
The problem with further delays is that cities and towns will be forced to bid, award and start work on projects in a significantly shortened construction season, which drives up the cost to taxpayers because the bid responses are more expensive. (With communities all competing for contractors in a shorter construction window, bid prices go up due to the limited supply of companies and the higher concentration of demand.)
The urgency surrounding Chapter 90 funding has increased, because President Trump’s widely anticipated $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill turned out to be a dud, with very little for cities and towns. Under the “plan,” the federal government would provide $200 billion, and local and state governments would somehow generate $1.3 trillion in “matching” funds. The president’s plan would require cities and towns to pay 80 percent to 90 percent for all projects, with the federal government providing pennies on the dollar. This new federal “incentive” is totally unrealistic. If cities and town had 90 percent of the funds for new road and infrastructure projects, they’d already be building them!
The bottom line is that our dependency on Chapter 90 will continue well into the future. We’re not getting additional federal help, so passing an adequate, multi-year program will continue to be a top priority for local leaders. Keeping the program at its current level will ensure that the cycle of pavement erosion will accelerate. This is why a long-term state-local transportation funding partnership is more important than ever.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO