Multi-year Ch. 90 bill needed now

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From The Beacon, March 2015

The record-breaking volume of snow this winter has triggered intense focus on the underinvestment in our public transit infrastructure. With antiquated equipment and underfunded maintenance budgets, train and bus systems literally ground to a halt in many parts of the state, after being pounded by a series of major storms.

These service disruptions have demonstrated just how interconnected our transportation network really is. With trains and buses sidelined, roadways slowed to a crawl, choked with additional cars and drivers forced to change their travel routines.

But another wave of transportation agony is about to emerge in the public’s awareness: crumbling roads in every corner of Massachusetts. When the snow recedes and springtime finally emerges, the thaw will unveil 30,000 miles of local roads that have taken a beating. The deep freeze, eight feet of snow and ice, and relentless plowing and sanding have taken their toll.

And the problem is that the countless potholes and compromised road surfaces must be fixed now, and all of the other long-delayed maintenance and repair projects must go forward now. Otherwise, these maintenance efforts will transform into much costlier and demanding reconstruction and rebuilding projects.

Massachusetts cannot afford to underinvest in local roads, which is why we need immediate action to ensure an adequately funded and timely Chapter 90 program, the primary source of revenue to maintain, repair and rebuild municipal streets and roadways.

Local officials across the state are united in thanking Gov. Charlie Baker for his leadership and quick action to release $100 million in previously withheld Chapter 90 road and bridge maintenance funds to cities and towns. His action and support has finally increased the Chapter 90 program to the $300 million level for fiscal 2015, as intended by the Legislature, and promised in the 2013 transportation finance law.

It has been a long journey, and municipal leaders have worked extremely hard to make the vision of a $300 million Chapter 90 authorization today’s reality. The Legislature voted to fund Chapter 90 at this level by a unanimous vote in 2013 and provided a broad tax and revenue package to significantly increase transportation investments. Cities and towns are finally sharing in a portion of the permanent gas tax increase that was adopted nearly two years ago.

Unfortunately, swift action is needed to keep Chapter 90 funding at an adequate level as we head into fiscal 2016, because the remaining bond authorization for Chapter 90 is only $100 million and must be supplemented by a new bond bill within the next few weeks. This is needed to ensure that cities and towns will receive timely notification of the full $300 million funding level that is necessary to maintain and repair our local roads – notification that, by statute, should be provided by April 1.

In order to ensure the timely release of $300 million in Chapter 90 authorizations for fiscal 2016, the MMA is urging the governor and Legislature to enact a multi-year Chapter 90 bond bill to enable cities and towns to plan for the future. Passage of a bond bill is a very time-consuming process, and in the past several years has delayed release of final Chapter 90 allocation letters until late in the summer on several occasions, rather than the customary and statutory date of April 1.

In order to avoid another round of frustrating and costly delays in the start of local road projects for fiscal 2016 and beyond, the MMA is calling for a multi-year, $300 million-a-year Chapter 90 bond bill as soon as possible. We believe it is important for the Legislature to enact a new Chapter 90 authorization before April 1. Otherwise, using history as a guide, the fiscal 2016 authorization will likely be delayed, and communities will be forced to try to bid, award and start work on projects in a significantly shortened construction season. The new authorization should be for five years and provide $300 million annually, indexed for inflation.

In December 2012, the MMA released a report documenting that cities and towns across the state need to spend at least $562 million every year just to bring local roads into a state of good repair, the industry standard for ensuring well-maintained roads in good condition.  We are completing an update of the report for 2015, which we expect to release within the next several weeks, that will show that the annual need has grown to more than $600 million. Currently, municipalities spend far less because of inadequate resources and because, for most cities and towns, Chapter 90 is the main or sole source of funds for road construction and repair. Funding the Chapter 90 program at $300 million annually, with an inflation-based adjustment, will close a portion of this huge gap.

We also note that the Chapter 90 program is the most effective and efficient way to ensure regional equity and regional access to the increased transportation tax revenues included in the final transportation finance bill, including the increase in the gas tax that was supported by the MMA. Chapter 90 shares transportation revenues in a fair way in every corner of the Commonwealth. Further, cities and towns face such a backlog of need that the increase will immediately result in visible and necessary construction and repair projects on local roads across Massachusetts.

Investing more in Chapter 90 funding to improve the quality of local 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 when it fails due to a lack of maintenance.

We need a strong multi-year Chapter 90 bill now. Delays will only serve to widen the potholes, erode our roads, and place a greater burden on local taxpayers. Swift action will serve to improve our roads, save taxpayers money, strengthen our economy, ensure regional equity, and make our streets safer and less crowded.

That’s a pretty good deal.