Boston on average receives nearly three times the amount of money per mile through the state’s coveted road repair program than many of the state’s rural communities, according to a state report that charges it’s one of many disparities driving the divide between the state’s capital and cash-strapped towns and cities in Western Massachusetts.
State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump is expected to release the 92-page report Tuesday, urging the Baker administration and the Legislature to pump at least $100 million more into the state’s local roadways fund and carve out more money from the state’s pot of federal stimulus money for Western Massachusetts communities, many of which she described as in decline.
“It’s not a very rosy picture, quite frankly,” Bump told reporters Monday in a briefing. “We need this kind of investment in order to reverse the trend of declining property values, of declining populations. Make it easier for commerce to be conducted. . . . The tourism economy will only take the area so far. And not everybody can work at Berkshire Medical Center.”
Bump is releasing the report as she prepares to testify Tuesday before lawmakers weighing how to spend nearly $5 billion in stimulus funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Democrat, a former Great Barrington resident, framed it as an opportunity to build a “rural rescue plan” aimed at Western Massachusetts’ broader transportation and infrastructure needs. She also painted a sometimes dire picture of the 101 cities and towns in the region: a community with a firehouse without running water, decaying roads, and public buildings that “if they were in private hands, might well be condemned,” she said.
Bump pointed specifically to the Pittsfield police station, using a drab photo of its booking desk that she said has doubled as a locale for filmmakers looking to capture a “decrepit 1940s, 1950s police station.” Local lawmakers told The Berkshire Eagle this week that the county is likely to lose one of its four seats in the Massachusetts House because of population declines, diluting its clout in the State House.
Key to the region’s needs is transportation help. Bump’s report says Governor Charlie Baker can unilaterally change how the state distributes local funding for roads to give more weight to the amount of miles of roadways a town or city has, and less to its population and employment levels.
The current formula, the report argues, heavily favors Boston and other urban centers at the expense of other communities out west, some of whom rely mainly, if not entirely, on so-called Chapter 90 funds to patch potholes or fix rickety bridges.
As a result, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, received $12,169 per mile last fiscal year, while Berkshire County’s 32 cities and towns averaged about $4,596 per mile to help cover its nearly 950 square miles. Franklin County’s 26 towns averaged even less, at about $4,383 per mile, according to the report being released by the auditor’s Division of Local Mandates.
Under current law, each of the state’s 351 municipalities is reimbursed funding for local projects based on three factors: local road mileage (58.33 percent), population (20.83 percent), and employment (20.83 percent). It’s a formula that, according to Bump’s report, has not been updated since the program was implemented in the early 1970s.
Bump contends the Baker administration can change the formula without legislative approval, and advocates using one proposed by state Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, that would change the road mileage apportionment to nearly 70 percent. (A MassDOT official said the formula can only be changed by legislation.)
The change would have consequences. Under that proposed formula, Boston alone would lose about $1.4 million per year in state funding to help maintain its heavily traveled streets and sidewalks, according to the report. That’s nearly 10 percent of the $14.7 million it received last fiscal year, according to state data. Meanwhile, 31 of the 32 communities in Berkshire County would see their allocations increase.
To offset any losses, Bump suggests the Legislature should devote $300 million each year to the Chapter 90 fund, a 50 percent jump from the $200 million it has received in recent years. The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, has lobbied for a similar increase.
Bump, who is not seeking reelection to a fourth term next year, said the report was “intended right from the start” to lay out the disparities between the eastern and western regions of the state.
“Now we have this golden opportunity that we’ll never have again to finally invest in these communities,” she said.
The road funds are an annual point of debate in the Legislature and a lifeline on which many Western Massachusetts communities heavily rely. According to a survey Bump’s office conducted of more than 40 communities, on average about 63 percent of their road funding came directly from the state.
Meanwhile, Springfield — by far the region’s largest community and the state’s third-largest city — estimated it would need at least $12 million a year to maintain its 1,110 miles of roadway. Yet, it relies entirely on funding from the state, which provided roughly $3.6 million in Chapter 90 funds each year since 2016.
“This disparity in funding leads to roadways in Western Massachusetts crumbling because of a lack of maintenance; lessens the quality of transportation networks there; and lowers the quality of life because of the challenges of moving people, services, and goods,” the report reads.