AP NEWS

House Keeps Local Road Funding at $200M for Another Year

May 9, 2019

BOSTON -- House lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to approve an annual road maintenance bill, once again supporting $200 million in borrowing for one year that municipal advocates say falls short of addressing significant infrastructure needs.

The bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, positions the state to hand out as much in Chapter 90 road and bridge repair funding as it has in five out of the past seven years. This version also approves another $200 million for rail improvements and $1.5 billion in bonding to allow for federal interstate repairs to advance, although lawmakers stressed that 80 percent of those latter cost would be reimbursed by Washington.

During a Wednesday formal session, the House approved the bill 156-0. Members had filed seven amendments seeking local earmarks, but all were withdrawn before the final vote.

The proposal now needs approval from the Senate, but it remains unclear if differences will emerge between the two branches as they did last year, when senators instead passed a three-year, $600 million Chapter 90 bill. Last week, an aide to Sen. Michael Moore, the chair of the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, said it is not yet clear what approach senators will take.

City and town officials have for years requested an increase to the annual allocation, which has been $200 million almost every year since fiscal year 2012, when the total state budget was about $11 billion smaller.

In the seven years since then, construction costs have increased by about 25 percent due to inflation, according to Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith, but the yearly Chapter 90 allocation remained $200 million except for 2015, when a total of $300 million was released, and this year, when state officials added another $40 million after the initial round of funding.

“Chapter 90 went up to $200 million a year in fiscal 2012, but during that time, construction inflation has eaten away at how much that $200 million can actually do,” Beckwith said.

Despite calls last week from the MMA for a $300 million minimum investment, Straus said the current funding level is sufficient when considered alongside other state programs to help local infrastructure. He pointed to a $50 million small bridge repair fund that needs reauthorization as an example, and noted the late-year $40 million increase that boosted this year’s funding level.

“We have increased not just state spending, but the money we provide to municipalities in other ways,” Straus told reporters before the vote. “I don’t agree that we’ve flatlined the expenditure. I just think we’re striving to find additional ways, either through the bridge program which I would like to see expanded or as direct budget aid to municipalities for their road and bridge needs.”

The process is moving along at a somewhat slower pace compared to last year -- despite the disagreement between the House and Senate, conference committee negotiators agreed to settle on a one-year, $200 million bill for in late April.

Straus said the timeline does not carry any negative implications for cities and towns because the current bill’s funding would only kick in July 1 at the start of the next fiscal year.

“Not a single project has been delayed this spring while waiting for this bill,” Straus said on the House floor. “This was taken care of over a year ago by the General Court and the governor. This would be for projects undertaken next fiscal year.”

The timeline creates some challenges for municipalities, though. Even if the funding is not dispersed until next fiscal year, city and town officials begin planning projects and procuring contracts as soon as the weather allows, Beckwith said, and that process can be difficult amid financial uncertainty.

For that reason, he said, the MMA hopes to see the current bill resolved immediately and return to the funding-level debate in the future.

“We understand we have more work to do with the Legislature and governor to reach a $300 million level, yet at the same time, we need this legislation to move very quickly,” Beckwith said. “What’s important is getting a bill to the governor’s desk as soon as possible.”