Ring in New Year with early Ch. 90 bill

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

From The Beacon, January 2016
 
Local officials are hoping that 2016 will ring in a string of positive investments in cities and towns, and one of the most important would be early action on a multi-year Chapter 90 bill to provide adequate funding for local transportation needs.
 
The just-ended 2015 construction season was a good one for local roads. Cities and towns received a much-needed $330 million allocation of Chapter 90 road repair funds, and the result was clear across the state, with orange cones sprouting up like wildflowers, marking important repair projects in nearly every community.
 
Modern and well-maintained roads, bridges and transit systems are essential in order to attract and keep families and businesses in the state, foster economic development and investment in our communities, create jobs, ensure public safety, and build a higher quality of life for our residents.
 
The progress on Chapter 90 funding, the primary resource cities and towns use to rebuild, repair and maintain 30,000 miles of local roads, began a year ago when newly inaugurated Gov. Charlie Baker released $100 million in funds that had been unwisely withheld by the previous administration. The governor and Legislature then enacted a one-year $200 million Chapter 90 bond bill, and the state also provided a special distribution of $30 million to help cities and towns repair potholes and other damage caused by the brutal winter.
 
It has long been recognized that Chapter 90 funding should be increased above the $200 million amount provided in 2014 and previous years. In December 2012, the MMA released a survey 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. In 2014, we updated the analysis, showing that the annual need has increased to more than $600 million. The additional cost reflects the overall deterioration of our transportation infrastructure and shows why delays and underinvestment will cost taxpayers much more in the long run.
 
Currently, municipalities spend far less than the amount needed 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. Under Proposition 2½, cities and towns are unable to increase the amount of local funds to supplement Chapter 90 unless they cut other important services, such as public safety or education, or pass a tax override, increasing local reliance on the already overburdened property tax. The result is seen in potholes and crumbling roads across the state.
 
Funding the Chapter 90 program at $300 million annually in future years, 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 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 timely and adequate funding results 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 to rebuild the road when it fails due to a lack of maintenance.
 
Swift action is needed to keep Chapter 90 funding at an adequate level as we head into the 2016 construction season, which will start in just about three months. In order to ensure the timely release of $300 million in Chapter 90 authorizations for fiscal 2017 (which covers the 2016 construction season), the governor and Legislature need to enact a new Chapter 90 bond bill by March at the latest. Otherwise, we could see a repeat of the frustrating and costly delays that communities experienced in 2013 and 2014, when funds weren’t released until late summer, cutting those construction seasons in half. That’s why it will be important for state officials to make Chapter 90 a priority within the next few weeks.
 
Specifically, the MMA is asking the state to enact a five-year Chapter 90 bond bill with $300 million in annual baseline funding, indexed to grow with the CPI each year. The five-year duration would provide predictability and stability, allowing communities adequate time for planning, instead of lurching year-to-year with one-year commitments. Indexing the program to the CPI would ensure that communities do not lose purchasing power over time. This investment is essential for the state’s economic future and necessary to save taxpayers millions of dollars in more costly projects when roads fail.
 
The first step will be for the governor to file a multi-year bond bill as soon as possible, and then for the Legislature to expedite public hearings so that the final measure can be enacted in time for official notification of Chapter 90 allocations to be sent to communities before the April 1 date called for in state law.
 
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. Quick 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 would be the best way to ring in a new construction year.