From the Beacon, September 2021

After what has seemed like decades of talk and little action on infrastructure, Massachusetts and the nation are on the verge of an unprecedented surge in funding to repair, rebuild and invest in our roads, bridges, culverts, seawalls, trains, buses, subways, airports, broadband networks, and drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems.

These critical public assets are essential to our quality of life and our economic future, yet all of these infrastructure systems are in various stages of disrepair or are facing massive challenges brought on by climate change or growing economic gaps that have left many communities and residents behind.

Ironically, while the COVID-19 pandemic is raging across the nation and has divided so many people and politicians on issues such as vaccine and mask requirements, public leaders have been much more united on the need to stand up massive economic and public health investments in our local communities. This is probably due to several related factors:

• Every corner of our nation has been negatively impacted, with shuttered businesses and disappearing jobs.
• The pandemic has cast a bright light on existing economic and social inequities, making most people more aware of the disproportionate impact the virus has had on our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors.
• Having a record number of residents live through an economic shutdown has increased the public’s sense of urgency and support for rapid and visible investments to recover and rebuild our economy.

This fall, our legislators in Congress and on Beacon Hill will have the opportunity to transform the talk and consensus on infrastructure into real action and unprecedented success. Here are three specific votes to watch:

Passing the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: The U.S. House will be convening in late September to vote on the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This is the $1 trillion bipartisan bill that Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren helped to forge, and it includes more than $8 billion in federal funding for Massachusetts over the next five years, covering the full range of public infrastructure assets, including transportation, environmental and broadband systems. (Here is a link to the White House’s analysis for our state.)

Massachusetts is fortunate to have a powerful House delegation, all of whom are committed to passing this critical legislation. The challenge is navigating this bill through a Congress that is much more closely divided on the pending $3.5 trillion federal budget blueprint to expand important social programs, as positioning on the budget measure may create roadblocks for passage of the Jobs Act.

Massachusetts action to deploy state ARPA funds for environmental, climate and housing investments: Last spring, the federal government passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which included a very welcome $8.7 billion in direct financial aid to state, local and county governments in Massachusetts. The bulk of the funds — $5.3 billion — went directly to the state, and the remaining $3.4 billion is being distributed to cities, towns and counties in two allotments. The ARPA specifically authorizes local and state leaders to spend the funds on four broad categories of investment, including water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. Local leaders are drafting their plans for how to use their municipal ARPA funds, yet they are missing critical information that is needed to make the best decisions possible: what the will state do with its $5.3 billion, and how can cities and towns leverage (or piggyback with) state ARPA funds to address local needs, such as upgrading water and sewer systems, implementing climate resiliency plans, confronting PFAS contamination, or increasing broadband access.

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation that would allocate $700 million to local environmental and climate resiliency projects ($400 million for the drinking water and clean water state revolving funds, and $300 million for the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program), but the bill has not yet gained traction in the Legislature, which is holding a series of hearings before deciding how to appropriate state ARPA funds. The MMA is supporting swift passage of the $700 million package. Timely action when the Legislature reconvenes this fall will be important, so that local officials can plan on how or whether to leverage those funds to advance essential local projects.

Providing a new $200 million cash infusion into the Chapter 90 program for local roads: While impressive, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the ARPA do not directly address the massive funding gap for locally owned roads. Jobs Act funds would mostly go to federal and state highways and transit systems, with a smaller amount targeted to large projects on state-numbered roads and very expensive and complex local hotspots, and municipal and state ARPA funds are largely not available for transportation-related investments. This means that the burden of maintaining, repairing and rebuilding the 30,000 miles of local roads in Massachusetts will continue to fall on the shoulders of local taxpayers.

The MMA estimates that the current $200 million Chapter 90 bond program is far short of the $600 million annual investment needed to maintain municipal roads in a state of good repair. With the state enjoying a near-record budget surplus, and growing its stabilization fund to $4.5 billion, the Legislature will soon be considering a fiscal 2021 budget close-out bill. The MMA has asked lawmakers to share $200 million of the state’s multi-billion surplus with cities and towns as a way to infuse the Chapter 90 program with much-needed dollars that can be put to work immediately on shovel-ready road projects across the state.

This is a time of unprecedented opportunity to invest in the expensive, complex and essential public infrastructure systems that are the building blocks of our economy. Passage of these three priority action items can propel Massachusetts forward and create a strong and equitable platform for growth in every corner of our state. As partners in rebuilding and restoring the Massachusetts economy, local leaders look forward to working with our federal and state lawmakers to make passage of all three measures a reality in the coming weeks.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO