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State’s aging infrastructure worries businesses

The Longfellow Bridge is undergoing a restoration project that is scheduled to end in 2018.
The Longfellow Bridge is undergoing a restoration project that is scheduled to end in 2018.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The intersection of Routes 2 and 2A in Concord, known as Crosby’s Corner, is undergoing a $65 million reconfiguration to make it safer. In Reading, workers are rebuilding more than a mile of road on busy West Street to improve traffic flow and replace gas and water lines. At the historic Longfellow Bridge, under construction since 2013, the $255 million in maintenance and upgrades are slated to continue until 2018.

Hundreds of bridge, highway, and tunnel repairs are underway across the state, and an even greater number of projects are slated for coming years. But this work is only making a small dent in the needs of the state's aging transportation system.

Over the past eight years, for example, a $3 billion initiative to repair bridges has reduced the number of structurally deficient spans in the state by 25 percent. But more than 450 spans were still rated structurally deficient at the end of 2014, according to federal highway data, and the state has estimated the remaining repairs will cost $14.4 billion.

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While the state is making some progress, worn-out roads and congested highways continue to make business leaders worry about the reliable delivery of goods, ability of employees to commute, overall appeal of the state as a place to do business, and effect on the Massachusetts economy.

"We need to avoid congestion because congestion costs dollars," said James Brett, president of the New England Council, a regional business advocacy group. "That's a consideration for whether businesses stay here or expand here."

Plans are in the works to address many of the state's problem roads and bridges, but the backlog is significant. Right now, 20 tunnel projects and more than 450 road maintenance, reconstruction, and resurfacing projects are in the design phase across the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, although it's unclear when and whether they will get built.

Massachusetts' infrastructure issues are fairly typical of those in other states, said Anthony Puntin, executive director of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section, a professional association. Still, given Massachusetts' reputation as a tricky place to do business, any infrastructure troubles can only hurt perceptions of the state, business leaders said.

For many businesses, one of the principal concerns is the timely delivery of goods and services to customers, said Chris Geehern, spokesman for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state's largest business association. Success today, particularly in a high-cost state like Massachusetts, depends on turning orders around quickly and meeting tight deadlines, Geehern said. Any delays and detours can affect the bottom line.

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Cape Medical Supply Inc. of Sandwich delivers medical supplies and equipment throughout the state; traffic congestion caused by inadequate roads and construction makes it difficult to get vital supplies to customers as efficiently as possible, said Gary Sheehan, the chief executive.

"It's something we are forced to account for on a regular basis," Sheehan said. "You make every effort to build knowledge about what's going on out on the roads into your schedule, but it's challenging."

Service delays and cancellations the MBTA experienced over the winter, along with highway congestion, also have many businesses worried about employee commutes. Undependable infrastructure, they fear, could lead to an unreliable labor force or keep talented candidates from even considering jobs in the area.

Efforts are underway to overhaul the T's management and finances, but some business leaders aren't sure it's enough. In April, a panel convened by Governor Charlie Baker projected that the T's costs would continue to exceed revenues in coming years, creating an annual revenue shortfall of $560 million by 2020 if action is not taken.

The state budget passed last month called for the creation of a financial oversight board for the T. Changes in the agency's leadership structure, including the appointment of Brian Shortsleeve, a former executive with the General Catalyst Partners venture capital firm, were made last week by the Baker administration. Still, some business leaders say more must be done to reshape the T.

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"We're just not there," said James Rooney, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. "There are much broader and longer-term issues about embracing the role of the T in our culture and economic system."

For businesses and commuters alike, poorly maintained roads can damage vehicles, leading to costly, time-consuming repairs. The American Society for Civil Engineers estimates travel on poorly maintained roads cost Massachusetts drivers $2.3 billion in repairs in 2013.

The Baker administration said it is tackling some of the state's most pressing issues. Amanda Richard, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, pointed to the bridge repair program, which, she said, is addressing "some of the largest unfunded bridge reconstruction projects in the Commonwealth, as well as providing valuable lessons on innovative ways of repairing bridges with less cost and with the goal of minimizing disruption."

Though there is agreement among business and government leaders that the state's infrastructure needs updating and upgrading, the question of paying for these improvements remains thorny. The result has been a growing ledger of obsolete train cars and potholed roadways.

"There has been a lot of deferred maintenance because funding hasn't been there to address those problems," Puntin of the civil engineers group said.

Fuel taxes have traditionally paid for bridge and highway projects. But more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road translates to less gasoline consumed and fewer taxes collected — even as wear and tear mounts.

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Furthermore, fuel taxes have not kept up with inflation. In 2013, the Massachusetts Legislature approved the first increase to the state gas tax since 1991, a 3-cent boost to 24 cents a gallon. The law also included annual, automatic increases tied to the rate of inflation, but that measure was repealed by voters in 2014.

The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1993, but support for tax increases is consistently hard to find in Washington. Last week, as highway funding threatened to dry up, the Senate passed a six-year transportation package, but the House only approved a three-month stopgap measure before summer recess.

"Transportation is one of those things that everyone wants," Rooney said, "and no one wants to pay for."


Sarah Shemkus can reached at seshemkus@gmail.com.