Katie Lannan, 3/30/22 5:04 PM
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 30, 2022.....Passing a borrowing bill to fund local road and bridge repairs through the Chapter 90 program is an annual exercise on Beacon Hill, with municipal officials each year asking for more than the $200 million that's typically allocated.
As state representatives on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill authorizing $200 million for the Chapter 90 program and another $150 million for other municipal transportation efforts, a key House lawmaker said the conversation about local road money should be a broader one.
"There's a misnomer out there that Chapter 90 is the be-all and end-all and only way that the state provides assistance for municipal roads and bridges," Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Transportation Committee, told the News Service ahead of the vote. "Chapter 90 is one piece of that puzzle."
Cities and towns have long advocated $300 million in annual road and bridge funding and asked lawmakers to pass multi-year bills that municipal leaders say would help them plan major projects.
Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, said the House bill does increase money for municipal transportation projects, but "it's just not under the one single category of Chapter 90."
"People have to think of what we do as broader than just Chapter 90," he said.
It includes $40 million for maintenance of state numbered routes, which Straus said are more likely to be major roads and are municipally owned, leaving cities and towns responsible for their upkeep.
Before passing the final bill, House Democrats on a party-line vote rejected an amendment from Rep. Kelly Pease that sought to bump the Chapter 90 money up to $225 million. Pease, a first-term Westfield Republican, said road conditions are a top complaint among residents, and that more money dedicated to Chapter 90 will help show state lawmakers are prioritizing roads.
Straus, who during debate on separate legislation earlier this month said the Chapter 90 formula needs to be reworked, asked his colleagues to vote down Pease's proposal in part because of the "inherent problems" with the formula. During Wednesday's session, he said revising the formula will be complicated and that lawmakers have reached out to him to share how Chapter 90 does or does not work for their communities.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who represents small towns in Western Massachusetts, said that one problem he has with the current formula is that his communities typically have plenty of road miles, but trail other areas in employment and population.
The only other amendment filed to the bill came from Braintree Democrat Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chair of the Revenue Committee. Cusack filed but withdrew without discussion an amendment that would have required the Massachusetts Municipal Association to post online "the salaries and compensation of all employees along with the portions that are funded by contributions from cities and towns and any portions funded from the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association."
The MMA, which represents the local officials of the state's 351 cities and towns, has been the leading voice calling for more Chapter 90 funds.
Ahead of Wednesday's session, MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith wrote to representatives again requesting $300 million a year, citing an estimated annual need of $600 million to bring municipal roads into a state of good repair and "substantially diminished" purchasing power since fiscal 2012 amid construction inflation.
"If Chapter 90 remains at $200 million for fiscal 2023, the real (inflation-adjusted) level of state support for local road projects would drop by 42.6% percent [sic], to an inflation-adjusted $117 million in fiscal 2023," Beckwith wrote. "That is a loss of $83.2 million in purchasing power over 11 years."
House Democrats are not ready to propose a revamp of the state's local road repair program when the House considers a Chapter 90 funding bill later this week, but Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus said it's still possible that a plan to rethink how the state distributes road funding will come together this session.
The House on Wednesday is preparing to take up an annual bill to finance the state's Chapter 90 road repair program, which distributes money to local cities and towns based on population, employment and road mileage.
Local leaders and lawmakers representing rural parts of Massachusetts with declining populations and ample roads to take care of have complained for years that the funding formula developed in 1972 no longer serves their needs and benefits more populous communities with larger commercial sectors.
Straus, during a debate in early March over whether to add $100 million to this year current Chapter 90 allocation, argued against pumping more money into a program with talks underway over how to better distribute available money.
"The comment I made on the floor had the benefit of creating among my colleagues and local officials a lot of reaching out with suggestions and ideas which is what, frankly, we were all hoping for, but we're not at a point where there would be something in this week's Chapter 90 bill," Straus told the News Service.
While the issues rural communities have with the formula are well known, Straus said he's heard from many communities that do well under the current formula that worry modern infrastructure is not properly accounted for by the system. For instance, Straus said the formula doesn't differentiate between a two-lane and four-lane road, or the need to maintain sidewalks and bike and pedestrian lanes in some municipalities.
"It brought home to me how complex the issue remains," Straus said.
The Mattapoisett Democrat said it's unlikely a new formula would be ready in time for the House's budget debate in April, but said he's hopeful a consensus can be reached before the Legislature recesses in July.
Gov. Charlie Baker has again filed for $200 million in Chapter 90 funding as the spring construction season gets set to start, but Straus said it's possible the House will add on to that figure. Last year, the Legislature padded the $200 million for Chapter 90 with $150 million in additional grant funding spread across six different competitive grant programs funding everything from bus lanes to electric vehicles and municipal charging stations.
"The idea of increasing municipal assistance to transportation beyond the $200 million of Chapter 90 is something that the speaker and leadership understands and is looking at," Straus said. "I don't know the final mix, but members seemed to respond well to what we did last year." - Matt Murphy/SHNS | 3/28/22 5:16 PM
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