The state funding that Western Massachusetts receives for road infrastructure, observers say, typically falls well short of what is needed.
The state borrows $200 million each year to send to cities and towns for road projects through the Chapter 90 program, a sum that has remained mostly constant since fiscal year 2012. About $8 million goes to Berkshire County communities.
That $200 million covers only one-third of the reported need, the Massachusetts Municipal Association has said. And as the cost of building and maintaining roads has risen by about 34 percent, state cities and towns have lost nearly $68 million in purchasing power, the association says.
Rural towns, with proportionately more miles of roads and fewer taxpayers to finance projects, have tended to “go without” repairs until they save up the money they need, said Jim Lovejoy, a selectman in the Southern Berkshire town of Mount Washington. Mount Washington, a town of about 150 residents, receives about $70,000 from Chapter 90 each year, he said.
“We usually have to save it up for two years in order to have a big-enough pile to pay for a project,” said Lovejoy, who said most projects are related to paving.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed this year’s Chapter 90 funding bill July 16, a day after the Legislature sent him the legislation, which included the $200 million for Chapter 90, as well as a plan to borrow $150 million for six grant programs.
The added money for those grant programs can help fill in gaps in Chapter 90, Lovejoy said, although applications for money are competitive.
“Unlike Chapter 90, where everyone gets a share, you have to be able to manage the grant process, which is more difficult for small towns [with fewer staff], although we do manage,” Lovejoy said, adding that Mount Washington hired a consulting firm when it applied for and received a MassWorks Infrastructure grant.
Several Berkshire County state lawmakers have said they expect the $25 million addition to the municipal small bridges program to benefit several local communities. The program has been “especially important in the smaller, rural communities I serve that generally have trouble keeping up with all the road -epair demands they face,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
An additional $25 million added for electric vehicles and electric vehicle infrastructure is “a real build-it-and-they-will-come investment,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
While the state typically aims to send Chapter 90 money to municipalities by April, so that cities and towns can take bids in time for the construction season, the process has finished in July the past two years.
Push for more money
Town administrators, highway superintendents and Department of Public Works directors in Berkshire County and beyond have made the case for greater Chapter 90 funding in recent years, said Clete Kus, transportation program manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
“It really has fallen on deaf ears, but all this does is push the problem further down the road as time goes by and infrastructure continues to degrade,” Kus said, noting that, in Great Barrington, bridges have closed for years during rehabilitation efforts.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he believes yearly Chapter 90 funding should be closer to $300 million to $400 million each year. He also has proposed a change to the Chapter 90 formula that, he said, would increase funding for every Berkshire County community except Pittsfield, even if the total pool remains at $200 million.
Road mileage, population and employment are the three criteria used to calculate Chapter 90 funding, currently weighted 58.33 percent, 20.83 percent and 20.83 percent, respectively. Pignatelli’s bill would increase the share of road mileage in the formula while decreasing the influence of population and employment, shifting the breakdown to 69.334 percent, 15.333 percent and 15.333 percent.
“Two of those three, we’re on the short end,” Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli said he believes cities still would be able to rely on their access to grant funding, including large sums through the Community Development Block Grant program. Cities tend to hold an edge in grant funding because of greater technical expertise, more full-time employees and, often, the existence of an engineering department, he said.
Federal COVID-19 relief money provides what many lawmakers see as a more immediate mechanism for infrastructure spending. Most of the $5.3 billion that Massachusetts received through the American Rescue Plan Act remains in an account that the Legislature controls.
“There’s going to be a lot more available money for infrastructure,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, who vice chairs the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight. “The key element in this is oversight, that the Legislature has a larger say in it and can make sure it goes to where it is best used.”
For Western Massachusetts to get its fair share, lawmakers say they need a voice in how the state spends the more than $5 billion it has recei…
On unpaved roads, more frequent freeze/thaw cycles increasingly have been leaving roads mussy and impassable. Lovejoy attributes the trend to climate change, as does state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, who along with state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, has proposed a bill to study the cost of maintaining unpaved roads.
“We knew there was a problem before in terms of maintaining these unpaved roads, a financial burden for many of our communities,” Blais said. “We saw many of the burdens of climate change this past weekend, and this will continue to be a problem.”
The Massachusetts Municipal Association had urged Baker in January to file a multiyear Chapter 90 bill authorizing at least $300 million in borrowing, indexed to keep up with yearly inflation. Such a bill “would significantly improve the ability to plan at the local level by adding a measure of predictability and certainty regarding the amount and the timing of these critical local road funds,” MMA Executive Director and CEO Geoff Beckwith wrote in the letter to the governor.