Lesser, Bump highlight shortcomings of western Mass. infrastructure

  • State Auditor Suzanne Bump FILE PHOTO

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 11/8/2021 10:01:16 AM

BOSTON – As state legislators ponder budget distribution across the state, Sen. Eric Lesser wants to make sure western Massachusetts does not get left behind.

Exactly one month after the Office of the State Auditor published a “bombshell” report outlining the many shortcomings of western Massachusetts’ infrastructure, Lesser, D-Longmeadow and State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump discussed some of the report’s most striking findings during the latest episode of the senator’s Lunchtime Livestream series Friday.

“The perceived east-west divide really does exist,” Bump said. “It really represents a different part of the commonwealth.”

The report “Public Infrastructure in Western Massachusetts: A Critical Need for Regional Investment and Revitalization” found that western Massachusetts communities are lacking the infrastructure and funding they need to properly develop.

In the 100-page study, Bump’s office analyzed the four counties that make up western Massachusetts and noted that the uneven economic development across the state is a “significant cause of concern.”

“If you want to try to redevelop, bring industries back or create new industries in western Massachusetts, then you really need to have solid infrastructure that will support that,” Bump said.

But western Massachusetts lacks that infrastructure. The report found that the region suffers from shortfalls in investment for municipal buildings, broadband and transportation or roadway infrastructure. These shortfalls put western Massachusetts at a constant disadvantage.

“There are challenges that may exist in other parts of the state, but they’re magnified in western Massachusetts, because there isn’t, among many of the communities, the tax base to support local budgets that can meet all the local needs,” Bump said.

Among the many struggles western Massachusetts is facing is rising costs. The area is facing a declining population, but at the same time it is home to many towns with the highest tax rates in the state, Lesser said.

One of the causes of this lack of funding can be traced back to how money is allocated statewide.

Bump said that 60% of what municipalities invest in road projects comes from the state, so there is a high dependency on state funds. Yet these funds are often distributed based on population, a criteria which disadvantages western Massachusetts’ declining population.

“There is a need to address the way we do that distribution and make population less of a factor, and put more emphasis on the miles of road that have to be maintained,” Bump said.

These are not only theoretical issues, but have very real consequences for the communities, Lesser said. One example is the town of Belchertown, which sees an “immense” amount of traffic for its location. This traffic is often mostly made by visitors, not its residents.

“There is an immense amount of road surface that they need to keep plowed, that they need to maintain … but it’s not necessarily servicing people that live there,” he said.

Broadband was the “brightest spot” of the report, said Bump, as federal funding is coming in to assist. Yet, there are still shortfalls.

“There’s a wide swath, still running down Pioneer Valley, where there is very poor access,” Bump said.

This report, said Bump, gives state legislators important “ammunition” to advocate for more equitable distribution of funds. Especially now that lawmakers are weighing the possible investment of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and from the state surplus, Massachusetts is facing a unique opportunity to assist communities in the western part of the state so that they are not left behind.

“There’s a real opportunity to make the kind of structural change that’s needed to benefit the rural communities in western Massachusetts,” Bump said.

“It’s not just words,” said Lesser. “It’s not just rhetoric. It’s real.”

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