By Bonnie Adams, Government Editor
Region – Maintaining a community's public ways – and the associated costs – is often at the top of a municipality's priority list. This point was stressed by local town and city officials to state legislators who gathered at a meeting sponsored by the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), at Union Station in Worcester May 18. The meeting brought together nearly 100 local legislators, municipal officials and leaders from other community groups to discuss the topic of transportation.
At the heart of the matter, officials said, is Chapter 90, the state program that in part reimburses municipalities for construction and maintenance costs associated with public ways and bridges. Many communities, especially those with smaller populations and/or no commercial base, rely heavily on Chapter 90 funds to help maintain, repair and construct roads and bridges. Each year, municipalities plead for more monies to pay for improving their public ways, but there is just not enough money to fund every need, CMRPC officials said.
Mary Ellen Blunt, CMRPC's transportation planning manager, explained that the Central Mass. Metropolitan Planning Organization oversees all aspects of transportation needs and funding for the central Massachusetts area. As such, it creates a 20-year “vision plan” that is reviewed and modified every four years. This plan identifies and makes recommendations for transportation needs such as infrastructure maintenance, congestion mitigation and railroad improvements.
It was important to note, she said, that while all state roads were part of a federal aid road system, not all of the maintenance for those roads was paid for with federal or state funds. Often ?the balance was borne by the towns or city the road was in.
As a result, those repairs are always not done, local leaders said; not because they are not necessary but because funding is instead allocated for other pressing needs in the community.
State Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, said that while she understood the concerns of the officials, reducing Chapter 90 funds hurts local municipalities.
“Chapter 90 is always at risk – the last five years have been disastrous,” she said. “But human needs must be balanced with the needs of the roads.”
State Rep. Kevin Kurkos, R-Uxbridge, lamented the slow pace of projects getting started. He cited an example in Uxbridge where a bridge was found to be in such a state of disrepair four years ago that it was moved to the state's Expedited Bridge program.
“But the work just started on it two months ago,” he added.
Local officials also noted the apparent paradox of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a three-year federal program designed in part to help with infrastructure construction and repairs. But as most of those monies were earmarked for “shovel-ready projects,” it left some communities in a “chicken and egg” situation, Blunt said. Municipalities were often reluctant to allocate design funds for a project (which could often be estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars) without knowing up front if the project would ultimately be eligible for reimbursement.
The lack of public transportation in many of the CMPRC's 40 communities continues to also be a concern, officials said, especially in regards to commuter rail transit.
Chandler had some good news for the audience however; there would be a “major capital bond for transportation” next year, she said.
“Start thinking about what you need,” she said, “and let us know.”