The need-based $50 million bridge repair program proposed by Governor Baker should be approved by the Legislature. You can pay now or pay much more later.
State Highway Administrator Thomas Tinlin told the House Bonding Committee Thursday that there is a "critical need" to address needed repairs to or replacements of many of Massachusetts' small bridges (Eagle, April 1.) This conclusion was based on inspections conducted by highway officials. Mr. Timlin noted that many communities can't pay for this work on their own.
This is not exactly breaking news as bridge work in the state has not been able to keep up with the decline of the state's bridges. There is an economic impact to a community when a bridge is unsafe to drive on and traffic has to be rerouted, inconveniencing residents, and the longer routes traveled by police, firefighters and EMTs can have a cost in human lives. Waiting for bridges to collapse before acting, as too many states have done, can have the same human cost, along with the high cost of replacing the bridges.
The five-year small bridge program was not included in the $200 million annual local road and bridge repair bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. It needs to be, and soon, so communities can get busy on the work during the good-weather months. Mr. Timlin was correct when he told the House committee that the money should be distributed by need, not equally among highway districts. If Western Massachusetts' has the greatest need for bridge repair and replacement, the largest amount of money should be sent to this region's municipalities.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo may propose to the governor that the number of the state's bond projects be reduced to pay for the additional bridge money, but as the state nears its debt ceiling, both the speaker and governor need to be realistic about their determination not to consider any tax increases. In the case of crumbling bridges, the expenditure on repairs or replacements pays dividends for communities in a variety of ways.