Boost needed for Ch. 90 local road funding

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From The Beacon, September 2016
At the MMA, we are working to update our statewide estimate of the annual local road funding needs of cities and towns, and we are looking to our members for some important information.
In early September, our “Chapter 90 Survey” will be sent to the chief municipal official in every community, and we hope to receive a response from every municipality by Oct. 1.
We conduct this survey every two years to provide an accurate assessment of the true cost of maintaining, repairing and rebuilding the 30,000 miles of local roads that are under the control of local government, and to buttress our appeal to the governor and lawmakers for a higher and more appropriate level of Chapter 90 funding, above the current $200 million level that communities have received for the 2016 construction season.
According to the 2014 analysis conducted by the MMA, cities and towns across the Commonwealth need to spend at least $639 million annually to maintain and bring local roads into a state of good repair. 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 amount necessary 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, would close a portion of this huge gap.
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.
For the past five years, the MMA has been pressing state leaders to permanently increase the Chapter 90 funding level to a base of at least $300 million, to be indexed by inflation each year. This 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 the governor’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 bill for the current year reverted back to the $200 million level, however, which means that this construction season will see a reduced level of maintenance and repair.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has just adopted 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 it recommends flat-lining Chapter 90 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.
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 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 multi-year 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 multi-year projects or to know how many years it will take to implement a comprehensive pavement management plan. Because a multi-year framework is best, it will be important to index annual funding to account for inflation and protect against the loss of purchasing power.
By enacting a multi-year, $300 million per year Chapter 90 bond bill very early next year, 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.