Becket Highway Department employees work on a paving project last summer in the town. (photo courtesy Christopher Bouchard)

After weeks of volleying, the House and Senate on Thursday approved a compromise bill that would fund the Chapter 90 local road and bridge program at $200 million for fiscal 2021.

The bill (H. 4803) awaits the governor’s signature.

Both branches had increased Chapter 90 to $300 million in bills passed this spring, but ultimately reverted to the $200 million level due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on state revenues.

The House in March had passed a companion bill that would raise new revenue for transportation programs, but the Senate was not willing to do so at this time.

House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz told State House News Service earlier in June, “We increased Chapter 90 at that point in time, but we had a way to pay for it,” referring to the House’s proposal to raise the state gas tax and other fees to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements and additional Chapter 90 funding. “It’s a little perplexing to figure out how we’re going to be … raising Chapter 90 without using the revenue sources that have been put out there by the House.”

Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore told State House News Thursday that he was “dismayed” to have to bring forward the lower Chapter 90 amount, but felt it was important to reach a compromise quickly because of the “urgency of this matter,” with the construction season already well underway.

“We’ve asked municipalities to put off contracts for too long,” Boncore said on the Senate floor.

The MMA has long advocated for an increase in Chapter 90 funding from the $200 million annual authorization that has remained flat for several years. The MMA saw the House and Senate votes to increase Chapter 90 to $300 million as hopeful signs that a permanent increase was coming, and will continue to advocate for the Legislature and governor to supplement the $200 million authorization before the end of fiscal 2021.

The Chapter 90 reimbursement program represents the only source of unrestricted, non-competitive funds for local road and bridge maintenance and repair. A statewide analysis by the MMA in 2018 documented that cities and towns need a total of $685 million per year to get 30,000 miles of local roads and more than 2,500 local bridges up to a state of good repair, a best practice standard for maintaining capital assets.

The fiscal 2021 Chapter 90 authorization had been held up in recent weeks as the House and Senate worked out a compromise over the future of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, which was set to expire at the end of June. Different proposals for the future of the board were passed by each branch. The compromise bill sent to the governor would extend the current composition of the board until June 2021.

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