Road funds hung up as construction season begins

THINKSTOCK
THINKSTOCK

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 7, 2014….Massachusetts lawmakers this year delivered to cities and towns an early promise of local aid levels in an effort to facilitate orderly municipal budget planning. But when it comes to funding for road repairs, 2014 is shaping up as the same old same old and local officials are fearful of another “frustrating and costly delay” in the start of warm-weather projects.

The spring construction season has begun and roads all over the state are in need of fixes after a difficult winter, but the Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick remain at odds over road repair funding levels this year and there’s no way to tell how long legislative leaders will take before they agree on a larger transportation financing bill.

During each of the past three years, road repair funds have not received the final green light until mid-summer.

This year, the House and Senate both allocated $300 million for the Chapter 90 road repair program in transportation bond bills (H 3882/S 2033) that are currently the subject of talks among a six-member conference committee. The negotiations began last month, are closed to outsiders and the conferees face no official deadline.

Patrick and his transportation team, after watching the Legislature last year drastically downsize his tax plan to pay for transportation investments, have stood firm in their belief that only $200 million is affordable.

So on April 1, the deadline to notify cities and towns of how much Chapter 90 aid they’ll be receiving this year, Patrick sent notices to all communities pegging the amount at $200 million. Patrick told local officials $200 million was “the highest level of funding apportioned for local transportation aid in the past decade,” according to a copy of the circular letter sent to each community with their specific, provisional aid amounts.

To actually begin construction work using Chapter 90 funds, cities and towns must wait not only for a Chapter 90 bill to be signed into law on Beacon Hill but also for passage of a subsequent bill laying out borrowing terms.

Local road funding is not the only area on hold while transportation bond talks continue.

In February, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said state highway system administrators had $564 million worth of work that had been advertised, but was on hold until a bond bill was approved. Davey said MassDOT was also ready to advertise 81 highway projects worth $400 million but was unable to do so without identified funding sources for those projects.

Asked about the status of those projects, MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie wrote back in a recent email, “The projects are still on hold, but we are hopeful for swift passage of the bond bill. We will be ready to get the projects out the door once the bill is passed.”

In a March 18 letter to the conference committee, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said the group that represents cities and towns supports a multi-year Chapter 90 authorization to facilitate better local planning and “eliminate the project delays that occur when authorizations are based on one-year bond bills.”

“As you know, the local construction season has been significantly shortened in each of the past three years due to this year-by-year approach,” Beckwith wrote, expressing support for a Senate-approved approach that would provide $1.5 billion to support a five-year $300 million annual local road construction program.

Beckwith also told conferees the MMA also supports a Senate bill measure that would change the official Chapter 90 notification date from April 1 to March 1 of each year. “This would ensure that cities and towns have access to their Chapter 90 funds for the entire construction season,” he wrote.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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