Public works chiefs welcome added state road money
Ned Huntley, director of the Northampton DPW, Thursday at the headquarters.
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Ned Huntley, director of the Northampton DPW, is one of many local officials hoping the state will come through with money for road repairs. Purchase photo reprints »
A proposed 50-percent increase in state aid for local road projects next fiscal year is welcome news to public works officials in Hampshire County, but they say the extra money will help only if it’s released in enough time to take advantage of the region’s short construction season.
Legislative wrangling in recent years has delayed appropriation of the so-called Chapter 90 funds well into the summer months, which puts many communities in a bind.
“When you finally do get it, you miss the construction season,” said Joseph I. Pipczynski, Easthampton’s public works director.
Local officials and representatives from the Massachusetts Highway Association worry that release of the Chapter 90 money could be delayed again this year by a lengthy legislative debate over the governor’s comprehensive transportation budget.
Gov. Deval Patrick filed a $13.7 billion, 10-year transportation bond bill last week, including $3.4 billion for the Chapter 90 local road and bridge program. That amounts to $300 million per year, up from the $200 million in the current fiscal year, and includes annual increases tied to inflation over the next decade.
Public works officials want the road money to be pulled out of the larger bill and approved as a stand-alone item.
“The extra money is good for cities and towns because there’s a lot of work that needs to get done,” Laura Wareck, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Highway Association, said. “The entire transportation initiative is important, but because of the timing this year, the larger bill could be debated for the entire summer.”
Pipczynski said he is not hopeful the Chapter 90 money will be debated separately, based on a meeting he and other public works officials had recently with state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.
Other public works chiefs agree that timing is critical.
Ned Huntley, director of Northampton’s Department of Public Works, said the construction season typically runs from May through September. Waiting until July or August doesn’t give communities enough time to put projects out to bid and secure contractors. That pushes projects back an extra year, something highway officials don’t want to do.
“It’s getting late in the season to make your projects work,” he said.
The governor’s proposal for bond funding on a 10-year basis, including a set amount for Chapter 90, might give communities more certainty about the money they can expect to see.
“If they’re going to give us 10 years, then one year won’t be as big of a deal,” said Guilford Mooring, superintendent of the Department of Public Works in Amherst.
Amherst in recent years has chosen to fund some its road projects through a pair of bonds worth a combined $5.5 million, rather than relying solely on Chapter 90 money. That is helping the town whittle down a $16 million backlog in road projects.
If the governor’s bill is approved, Amherst would get about $1.26 million in Chapter 90 funds, up from about $842,300 in the current fiscal year.
Huntley said he is happy to hear that Northampton is in line for $1.5 million in state money for road projects, up from the slightly more than $1 million it received in the current year.
“It’s definitely moving in the right direction,” Huntley said.
But he adds that the city needs a lot more money to do an adequate job of maintaining its 150 miles of roads. Officials estimate the city has a backlog of road projects totaling $38.1 million, he said.
“We’re not the only community dealing with this,” Huntley said.
While calling the increased Chapter 90 revenue a “great start,” Pipczynski agrees that municipalities, charged with maintaining some 80 percent of the roads in the state, need more money simply to maintain streets and roads as they exist today.
A statewide survey conducted by the Massachusetts Municipal Association last year found that cities and towns face a $362 million annual shortfall for maintaining local roads and bridges. The report also found that communities need to spend $562 million every year to maintain local roads in a “state of good repair.”
Under the new bill, Easthampton would get about $739,600 in fiscal 2014 for road projects, up from the current fiscal year of about $493,000. Like many communities, this is the only money the city uses to fix and maintain its 80 miles of roadways. The city currently works on about a mile of roadway a year when it should be doing closer to eight.
Another factor working against communities is the price of blacktop, which has more than doubled to $90 a ton in recent years, Mooring and Pipczynski said.
“The price is going through the roof,” Pipczynski said. “That means the amount of miles we could blacktop has decreased significantly.”
The price jump has been especially hard on communities that rely on Chapter 90 funds to buy equipment, complete sidewalks, bike lanes and other approved uses aside from road work, Mooring said.
“When the price doubled, it threw us behind,” he said.
The state doles out Chapter 90 money based on a formula that takes into account road miles, population and the number of people employed in a community.
Patrick’s proposed bill would authorize a total of $19 billion in capital investments in the state’s transportation system. The governor proposes to fund the program through an income tax hike and other tax-related changes. The administration says the tax changes would raise an additional $1.9 billion per year when fully implemented.