Our Opinion: Free highway funds from budget delays
Beacon Hill tends to approve budgets at the last minute, and with Governor Deval Patrick proposing budget and tax increases that is sure to be the case this year. That will once again be too late for the Berkshire communities that need Chapter 90 funding for local road projects that must be completed, not started, by fall. The remedy is for the Legislature to separate Chapter 90 funding from the rest of the transportation budget.
Three Berkshire road officials met with The Eagle on Thursday to make a compelling case for that change. The officials not only endorsed the transportation hikes proposed by the governor, which would enable towns to undertake the maintenance projects that save the state money in the long run, they advocated a release of Chapter 90 funding by April 1, a deadline that is mandated by law but never met. When the money is delayed until late August, as was the case last year, towns not only lose the summer construction season but often must begin the complex bidding process all over again, potentially at a financial cost to the town.
Governor Patrick proposes increasing Chapter 90 funding from $200 million to $300 million annually, a welcome increase even though a survey of state highway departments found that local officials believe that it will cost more than $550 million annually just to maintain roads in their current condition. Otis highway superintendent Christopher Bouchard said the cost of building roads is estimated at between $800,000 and $1 million a mile, a burden that can best be avoided by the kind of diligent maintenance that requires more funds. Mr. Bouchard was joined at The Eagle by Maynard Forbes of the Monterey highway department and his West Stockbridge counterpart, Curt Wilton.
Mr. Bouchard said the Berkshire legislative delegation supports taking Chapter 90 aid out of the overall budget so money can be released earlier, and the House approved that measure in 2012. The Senate did not, and the governor wants the transportation budget taken as a whole. That means that the work funded by Chapter 90 -- repaving of roads, sidewalk and culvert repair along with related work -- will again be "held hostage" to the lengthy budget debate, in the words of Mr. Wilton.
Highway funding is one part of the budget whose use is contingent upon weather and the seasons. Chapter 90 funding must be released earlier so towns can put it to use when the construction window opens, not when it closes.