While overall state spending has increased substantially and maintenance costs have grown due to inflation, the annual state allotment for local road repairs has remained $200 million for six out of the past seven years.
As a result, cities and towns already struggling to keep roadways in a state of good repair are finding it harder to pay for important infrastructure projects, Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston argued last Wednesday. The solution, he said, is to increase Chapter 90 funding above what Gov. Charlie Baker recommended in his bill, a move long requested by municipalities and advocates with little success.
“Everything has gotten more expensive, literally,” Holmes said during a House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets hearing on Baker’s bill. “So if we’re keeping it at $200 million, we’re getting less and less roads done while everything is getting more and more expensive to do.”
Holmes was not alone in using the hearing to advocate for a Chapter 90 boost. While the committee prepares to vote on the annual bill — which, in addition to allocating $200 million in road repair funding, also includes money for rail and federal highway projects — representatives from the Massachusetts Municipal Association and Construction Industries of Massachusetts asked lawmakers to increase the allotment to $300 million.
“Our local governments desperately need an increase in funds to maintain the 30,000 miles of roads and bridges in a state of good repair,” said Ariela Lovett, a legislative analyst for the MMA. “We don’t see [$300 million] as meeting the full articulated amount from our communities, but it would go part of the way there.”
Lawmakers first set Chapter 90 funding at $200 million in fiscal 2012. Since then, the state budget has increased by more than $11 billion, but local road repair reimbursement — always approved in that stretch as a single year of funding — remained the same in every year except for 2015, when it increased to $300 million.
The committee appears poised to advance Baker’s bill as is. After the hearing, chairman Antonio Cabral told the News Service that when committee members are polled in the next few days, they will likely cast votes on the existing legislation rather than a version that increases the Chapter 90 funding.
“I don’t know if it’ll be a higher figure at this point,” Cabral said. “I would say unless there is any substantial information that comes about or need that comes about between now and the time we report the bill out, it’s probably safe to say we’re probably going to recommend what’s being heard today, but I don’t want to say that’s sure.”
Cabral said the committee hopes to report out the bill this week so that it can go to the House for a full vote as soon as next week. Lawmakers said they want to approve the money soon so cities and towns can take advantage of construction season, but the measure will be signed into law well after the April 1 deadline cited by the MMA.
Last year, the Senate approved a three-year, $600 million Chapter 90 bill, which advocates said would have helped municipalities better plan for projects, before a conference committee settled on the existing one-year, $200 million package.
An aide for Sen. Michael Moore, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, said that it is not yet clear if senators will pursue a multi-year approach again this session. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Boncore could not be reached for comment.
Administration officials in March said they would follow the Legislature’s lead if a multi-year bill was passed, but on Wednesday, they did not offer the same message about the overall funding amount.
Cabral asked a Baker administration panel on several occasions if they were reluctant to increase the Chapter 90 amount, but he did not receive a direct answer. When Rep. David Vieira asked if the administration could handle $300 million and ensure the full amount was dispersed and spent by cities and towns in a single fiscal year, Undersecretary of Administration and Finance Jennifer Sullivan responded that she was not sure.
“I don’t know the answer to that right now,” she said. “You are right that there are a number of competing priorities, so the Legislature is free to
authorize an amount that they see as appropriate.”
In addition to Chapter 90 funding, Baker’s bill also includes $200 million for rail improvements sought by the Department of Transportation and $1.5 billion for federal highway infrastructure work. Officials said 80 percent of the latter project would be covered by federal grants, but the state needs to approve the full spending amount to qualify.