Under President Biden, it’s raining infrastructure money. With a powerful Massachusetts congressional delegation fighting for a share, the state is ready to revel in it.
Will this taxpayer money be used wisely, and for what it’s intended? That requires a carefully calibrated partnership with the state. “When the stimulus money came out, the state with the most coordinated plan in place was the one that could leverage the money in the most effective ways,” said state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, who worked for the Obama administration and the White House Council of Economic Advisers when federal dollars were pumped into the economy after the 2008 financial crash.
A big test lies ahead if a piece of the $2 trillion infrastructure package comes through for a commuter-rail service linking Pittsfield with Boston. With US Representative Richard Neal chairing the House Ways and Means Committee and three Massachusetts representatives holding seats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — Jake Auchincloss, Stephen Lynch, and Seth Moulton — hopes for that project are high. But the delegation’s pro-train advocacy butts up against Governor Charlie Baker’s historic lack of enthusiasm for public transit.
After getting hundreds of millions in stimulus money for the MBTA, Baker was essentially forced by the delegation to promise to use it to restore T service cuts. When it comes to the east-west rail link, to date he has been passionately uninterested in it. Stating the obvious here: Members of the congressional delegation are all Democrats, Baker is a Republican, and infrastructure spending, like everything else, has turned into a highly partisan issue.
Republican governors have a thing about rail. They think it costs too much, even when the federal government is paying for most of it. In 2010, then-Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey famously walked away from $3 billion to build a commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan, which was part of the Obama administration’s infrastructure package. In 2011, then-Governor Rick Scott of Florida turned down $2 billion for a high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando, and Scott Walker, then governor of Wisconsin, rejected hundreds of millions for a Madison-to-Milwaukee line in 2010.
If infrastructure money comes through for the east-west rail link, no one expects such drama in Massachusetts. It’s more a question of priorities, and who’s driving the train — Baker or “Governor” Neal? Neal told masslive.com he has spoken to Baker repeatedly about the rail plan, adding, “I can’t imagine that the state wouldn’t be prepared to do their formulaic match for an infrastructure bill. The governor understands clearly the federal partnership here.”
The delegation pulled rank when Baker resisted reversing service cuts on the T, despite the influx of federal stimulus money. “After the congressional delegation came through with the money, they made it very clear the service should come back,” said Chris Dempsey, a public transit advocate. “That was the whole point of the federal money.” For now, said Dempsey, “the delegation is setting the agenda.”
But this isn’t about keeping score. It’s about putting the money to its best use for Massachusetts — in this case, by improving rail transit — with everyone making sure it’s well spent. “You need both sides of the coin working together,” said Lesser.
Massachusetts was once a model for how federal and state government can work together to achieve a major infrastructure goal. The burying of the Central Artery and its replacement network of roads and tunnels, known as the Big Dig, was supported by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, after heavy lobbying by powerful Democrats in the Massachusetts delegation, including House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Senator Ted Kennedy, and Representative Joe Moakley. Then-Governor Michael Dukakis — a Democrat — and his transportation secretary, Fred Salvucci, committed to making it work. That was followed up by Governor Bill Weld, a Republican, and his secretary of administration and finance, Charlie Baker.
While a catalyst for Boston, the Big Dig is still a cautionary tale. It took longer than it was supposed to and cost much more than predicted. The debt was transferred to the T, which added to that agency’s debt burden.
When infrastructure money comes pouring in, there should be a coordinated plan for using it, and enough oversight so taxpayers get what they pay for.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.