Our Opinion: Highway funding overdue for reform

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The Baker administration released its funding proposal for Chapter 90 local road projects a few weeks earlier than usual last Friday in the hope that municipalities will be better able to take advantage of a short construction season. That effort is certainly appreciated by town highway departments but an increase in stagnant Chapter 90 funds would be appreciated as much or more.

The governor proposed $200 million for the Chapter 90 budget, which is the figure the Legislature has ultimately approved in eight of the last nine years, according to the State House News Service. In that time, the the state budget as a whole has grown by $11 billion. The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) asserts that this sum does not even keep up with inflation and is insufficient to maintain the tens of thousands of local highways and bridges in the state. A 2018 MMA survey of cities and towns concluded that it would take nearly $700 million in Chapter 90 funds to keep local highways and bridges maintained adequately — a sum the MMA is not seeking. The organization has argued for an increase to $300 million.

The MMA and its member communities have maintained for years that Chapter 90 should be funded on a multi-year basis so towns and cities can count on funding for major projects that have been put off for years, leading to financially shortsighted patchwork projects. At a press conference announcing the Chapter 90 funding, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito passed the buck on multi-year funding, telling reporters that "It's really in the Legislature's hands to do this." Lawmakers should consider that approach this session.

At an Eagle editorial board meeting in May 2013, seven years ago, highway officials from Monterey, Otis and West Stockbridge advocated for multi-year funding and for earlier budget approval so they could take advantage of an extremely brief construction season in their small towns. By the time the projects get put out to bid, there is even less time available for them to be completed. With the administration having moved up its announcement of its Chapter 90 funding proposal, it really is in the Legislature's hands to come up with its own Chapter 90 plan quickly. In 2019, lawmakers sent the governor a bill in June, which is about two months into what could optimistically be called the construction season in Berkshire hill towns.

Earlier this month, the Baker administration with much fanfare released $880,000 in highway and bridge funding from unanticipated revenue. Funding was provided to communities in an equal percentage to their Chapter 90 funding, and while it was certainly helpful, the $41,000 provided to Great Barrington, for example, "doesn't keep up with inflation and the cost of asphalt" according to Public Works Supt. Sean VanDeusen.

We urge the Berkshire legislative delegation to advocate for increased Chapter 90 funding, as they have in the past. An increase in the state's modest gasoline tax could be a potential source of revenue. We urge them to prod leadership into considering a multi-year funding strategy and to make Chapter 90 funding a priority so it doesn't languish until the end of the budget process while lawmakers debate unrelated issues. Local roads and bridges are of critical importance to taxpayers and the state can do better by those taxpayers, their communities and road crews trying to cram a collection of projects into a few short months.

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