From the Beacon, January 2019

Happy New Year!

As you see in this first issue of The Beacon in 2019, the MMA has updated the statewide estimate of the local road funding needs of cities and towns. Our conclusion is that communities across the Commonwealth need to spend $685 million per year to maintain, repair and rebuild the 30,000 miles of local roads that are under the control of local government (see related story, page 3). This is further evidence that funding for the Chapter 90 program needs to increase from the current $200 million level, up to at least $300 million.

Chapter 90 is the main or sole source of funds for road construction and repair for most cities and towns, and municipalities are currently spending far less than the necessary $685 million amount, due to inadequate resources, including an insufficient Chapter 90 authorization level. Funding the Chapter 90 program at $300 million annually, with an inflation-based adjustment, will close a portion of this huge gap, and increase transportation investments in every community in Massachusetts. The MMA has been pressing state leaders for this funding level for the past seven years.

The Chapter 90 program is the most effective and efficient way to ensure regional equity and access to state transportation tax revenues, because the program shares gas tax dollars in a fair way in every corner of the Commonwealth, and lets taxpayers know that their local needs are recognized. Further, cities and towns face such a backlog of need that any increase will immediately result in visible and necessary construction and repair projects on local roads across Massachusetts, supporting real-time economic growth and expansion.

A $300 million base, indexed to inflation, is the minimum amount necessary to have the Commonwealth share its gas tax revenues with cities and towns to adequately maintain local roads. Spending more on our transportation infrastructure will raise the quality of life for residents, enhance public safety, and expand economic development in our communities.

The state did reach the $300 million threshold for the 2015 construction season, thanks to a previous Chapter 90 bond authorization approved by members of the Legislature and the release of full funding by the Baker-Polito administration on Gov. Baker’s first day in office. That $300 million authorization enabled cities and towns to begin to properly fund local road improvement plans, including pursuing a “state of good repair” approach that is a best practice standard for maintaining capital assets. The most recent Chapter 90 bond bills have reverted back to the $200 million level, however, which means that the past three construction seasons have seen a reduced level of maintenance and repair.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is working under a comprehensive five-year Capital Investment Plan that includes funding for many local and regional projects that are important to cities and towns in the Commonwealth, but unfortunately Chapter 90 is flatlined at $200 million a year.

Interestingly, the state’s plan places a strong focus on system reliability as a key priority, which is exactly why Chapter 90 should receive more weight. We believe that maintaining our local roads is the most essential action that can be taken to increase the reliability of our roadway system and transportation network. That’s why we have asked the administration to revisit its plan and provide an increase for Chapter 90 when Gov. Baker files his bond bill later this month.

Investing in the proper upkeep of our 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 would become necessary to rebuild the road when it fails due to a lack of maintenance. This is a powerful argument in favor of restoring Chapter 90 funding to at least the $300 million level, because dropping down to a lower level of investment in the short term will certainly cost taxpayers much more in the long term.

A multiyear approach to Chapter 90 funding is important, too, as this would significantly improve the ability to plan at the local level. For too long, Chapter 90 authorizations have lurched from year to year, with little predictability and much uncertainty regarding the amount and the timing. This has made it difficult for communities to plan multiyear projects or to know how many years it will take to implement a comprehensive pavement management plan. Because a multiyear framework is best, it will be important to index annual funding to account for inflation and protect against the loss of purchasing power.

There is some hope on this issue. Last year, the governor and Legislature provided a supplemental cash distribution of $40 million for municipal road repairs in an appropriations bill to close out fiscal 2018. This clearly shows that lawmakers understand that the current $200 million bond approach falls short of what’s needed. Also, during last year’s deliberations on the bond bill, the Senate indicated its support for a multiyear measure, although the final result was just one year.

We are asking state officials to build on these actions and take the full steps necessary to meet local needs.
By enacting a multiyear, $300 million-a-year Chapter 90 bond bill very early this year (by March at the latest), state leaders can infuse our communities with funding to invest in our roads, enhance public safety, grow our economy, and save taxpayers millions of dollars by keeping the cost of maintenance projects lower over the long term. Keeping Chapter 90 at its current level will lead to more potholes, unreliable roadway networks, and higher costs due to crumbling streets. The choice seems pretty clear.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO