From the Beacon, March 2020

As this edition of The Beacon was heading to the presses, the leaders of the House of Representatives unveiled an impressively broad package of revenues and investments to address the critical challenges facing our transportation system. Speaker Robert DeLeo and his key leadership team announced plans to raise approximately $600 million in new funds to inject into our roads, bridges and public transit systems at every level.

A centerpiece of the House plan is a strong partnership with cities and towns, and a commitment to regional equity to ensure that every part of the state receives new and impactful resources. In particular, we applaud the commitment to bring the Chapter 90 program up to $300 million a year, a top MMA priority. Local leaders across Massachusetts deeply appreciate the commitment and support that Speaker DeLeo and House lawmakers are providing to our communities, and the recognition that local government is an equal partner in delivering the safe and modern transportation system that our residents and businesses expect and demand.

At the MMA Annual Meeting in January, our members overwhelmingly adopted a resolution supporting new revenues to fund transportation, including an increase in the gas tax, fees on transportation network companies, and consideration of other revenues. The resolution calls for increased investments in Chapter 90, new funding for regional transit authorities across the state, and support for important enhancement programs, such as the small bridge program and Complete Streets. The House plan embraces all of these components.

In addition to our work with our Board of Directors, policy committees and members, we have been working with a large coalition of business and civic organizations – The Transportation Table (T3) – that has also endorsed new state revenues to invest in transportation, with all of these stakeholders supporting the dedication of $100 million of these funds to bringing Chapter 90 funding up to $300 million a year. This reflects a broad understanding that municipal roads are vital to our transportation system.

The MMA’s biennial survey of local road funding needs shows that local government would need to spend $685 million annually to maintain 30,000 miles of local roads and more than 2,000 bridges in a state of good repair. But this is nearly impossible to achieve, due to the property tax cap imposed by Proposition 2½ and the lack of meaningful support from the federal government.

Cities and towns have appropriated local revenues and used municipal bond funds for local road repair programs, but they cannot keep up with state-of-good-repair work without regular growth in Chapter 90 authorizations. As you know, we have long requested increasing Chapter 90 to $300 million a year, indexed to grow with inflation each year, for this purpose.

Chapter 90 bond-funded allocations have been mostly stagnant at $200 million since fiscal 2012, except for fiscal 2015 when the governor released $100 million in previously withheld authorizations to bring that year’s Chapter 90 funding up to a very welcome $300 million. There have also been smaller one-time supplemental authorizations ($30 million in fiscal 2015 for the Winter Recovery Program, $40 million in fiscal 2019 from the fiscal 2018 state surplus, and $20 million in fiscal 2020 from the 2019 state surplus).

Further, the challenging reality is that the purchasing power of the Chapter 90 program has been substantially diminished since fiscal 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Following the U.S. DOT’s National Highway Construction Cost Index, the cost of building and maintaining roadways in Massachusetts will have grown by 34 percent during the fiscal 2012-2021 time period. This means that without an increase in Chapter 90 funding in fiscal 2021, the real (inflation-adjusted) value of $200 million would drop by 34 percent, to $132 million in fiscal 2021. That would be a loss of nearly $68 million in purchasing power.

The great news is that the House transportation plan would more than make up for the impact of inflation, providing a real and meaningful boost in Chapter 90 funding for cities and towns.

The Chapter 90 local roads program is a vital and effective way for cities and towns across the state to keep roads safe and to meet state-of-good-repair standards in local capital programs. Municipal road projects are also increasingly important as local initiatives to respond to climate change and other environmental challenges, such as stormwater management.

The sooner that Beacon Hill can complete action on the transportation package, the better. That’s because the municipal road construction season is already here, thanks in part to an unusually mild winter. Cities and towns are anxious to get to work immediately, but they cannot transform their Chapter 90 allotments into actual construction until the bond bill is enacted into law and the governor provides official authorization notifications to localities.

That’s another reason why the time for bold action is now. We are grateful that the House is leading with a broad package of resources and investments, and we look forward to swift and comprehensive action in the Senate as well. The beneficiaries will be the residents and businesses of Massachusetts, as state and local officials move forward in partnership to deliver a safer and better transportation system that will allow our economy to grow and thrive.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO