Secretary tours culvert sites targeted for upgrades with state grants

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PITTSFIELD — Standing on Churchill Street on Friday, Kathleen Theoharides watched as a stream flowed through a dilapidated culvert on its way to Onota Lake.

"This is a mess," she said as she spotted some exposed stone that has shifted from its original location.

Theoharides, secretary of the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, was joined by Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and city officials during a visit to the site just west of the lake. The secretary and members of her office were in Berkshire County this week to tour the sites of culverts in Windsor and Pittsfield that will be improved with the help of separate state grants.

Of the 25,000 culverts in the state, about half are undersized for even the current climate conditions, Theoharides said. And as storms get more intense, they will become even more inadequate.

In June, the state awarded more than $922,000 to five Berkshire County municipalities to use toward climate change resiliency projects through the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program. Pittsfield received the biggest chunk of the state funding and plans to use the $814,524 to replace problematic culverts at Churchill and West streets.

On Thursday, Theoharides announced in Windsor that the state will spend an additional $932,000 across Massachusetts on culverts through the Division of Ecological Restoration's Culvert Replacement Municipal Assistance Grant Program. Of that, Windsor will receive $165,000 for a culvert on a tributary to the East Branch of the Westfield River. And Sheffield will receive $54,000 to conduct final engineering and design and permitting for a culvert replacement on Dry Brook.

Being prepared for the effects of climate change should not be a political issue, Theoharides said, but rather a state and community partnership to protect the livelihoods and homes of Massachusetts residents.

"It's about getting everyone in the room together, and getting everyone on the same page," she said.

The culverts — they are tunnels that direct stream water under roads — are considered climate change resilience projects because they prevent flooded roads during heavy precipitation.

Tyer talked Friday about the importance of state partnerships when taking on infrastructure projects.

The municipal funding often is tied up in public safety, schools and economy projects, and while the city contributes to culvert projects when possible, it can be difficult to find the money, she said.

"This is the type of project we would not be able to do with municipal funding," she said.

The design phase for the Churchill Street culvert has been completed, according to city engineer Ricardo Morales. Bidding on the project will begin in the winter, with construction as early as May, he said.

The stream that flows through the Churchill culvert connects to Onota Lake, according to James McGrath, the city's parks and natural resource program manager.

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By creating a larger culvert, it will keep the water quality high in the lake, he said.

"This looks like you could get a lot of water through here when it's raining heavily," Theoharides said.

More than 70 percent of cities and towns signed up to participate in the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which includes funding for planning and executing resiliency projects, since it was established in 2016.

As a part of that program, the state also is hiring a full-time coordinator dedicated to Berkshire County. This position, one of six regional coordinators in the state, will be based in Berkshire County to assist cities and towns with applying for state money and executing related projects, she said.

The state is looking for someone with experience working with the community, who knows the region well, and has a sense of infrastructure planning, she said. The salary would be about $80,000, she said.

The goal in this programming is to ensure that it works just as well in small rural communities as it does in urban areas and on the coast, she said.

Currently, the grant funding is tied to the state's annual budget, but Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed legislation that would create a trust fund dedicated to these kind of partnerships.

The funding for the proposed trust, an estimated $1.3 billion over 10 years, would come from a "modest" increase to the real estate transaction fee, Theoharides said.

The increase would be about $900 to the sale of a $400,000 home, she said. The fee hasn't been increased in 30 years, she added.

"We believe this is a really innovative, creative way to protect property," she said.

In addition to preparing for climate change through projects like these, the Baker administration wants Massachusetts to be a national leader in climate change mitigation efforts, she said.

Massachusetts is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a rate even more aggressive than the Paris Agreement, she said, referring to a international pact to combat climate change from which the U.S. has withdrawn its participation.

In the winter, Massachusetts and leaders from at least eight other states will announce a regional Transportation Climate Initiative, an effort to decrease transportation emissions while increasing mobility in the state, she said.

"We know people drive an average of 40 miles to work out in this part of the state," Theoharides said. "We expect to have an announcement in December about the policy framework for that idea."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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