Report Says Massachusetts Roads, Parks in Disrepair

Thu February 07, 2008 - Northeast Edition
CEG



Bolts rattle in the Ted Williams Tunnel, road grates shake loose on Route 128, a decrepit bridge in Attleboro, Mass., forces fire trucks to take time-consuming detours.

Are Massachusetts roads falling apart? West Warren resident Tom Rugani thinks so.

Last year, he spent $300 to fix a shock absorber on his Toyota Tercel after hitting a pothole. Endless work on a bridge over Route 20 impedes his way daily.

“It’s been under repair now for six years,” Rugani complains. “They spend millions and millions of dollars on a little bridge, and it doesn’t get finished.” Rugani is not alone in his frustration.

A series of reports and studies suggest that Massachusetts drivers’ lamentations over road conditions are well founded:

• The Massachusetts Infrastructure Investment Coalition, a think tank supported by highway engineering companies, estimates urban drivers in the state spend about $400 more on their cars each year than non-urban drivers.

• A 2005 U.S. Department of Transportation report found only 14.8 percent of major roads and highways in the state were in “good” or “very good” condition. That ranks Massachusetts at 48 among the states. Only New Jersey and Hawaii are worse.

• The Massachusetts Municipal Association reported in 2005 that cities and towns needed more than $230 million annually to reconstruct the worst roads and keep the rest in good condition. The association said an additional $200 million was needed to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges from 542 to 443. Since then the number has increased to 585.

• A report by Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute ranks Massachusetts as 49th in the nation in infrastructure. Only New York was worse.

“We’re at the bottom of the list,” Sen. Steve Baddour, D-Methuen and chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said in a phone interview while stuck in traffic on I-93. “We’ve underinvested in maintaining the roads and bridge system, and I think we’re paying the price.”

The collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in August prompted many states to reexamine their transportation infrastructure. Before it collapsed, the Minneapolis bridge was classified as structurally deficient under a federal assessment process.

While not necessarily unsafe, a structurally deficient bridge has speed and weight limits because of deterioration. The growing number of such bridges, called “boomer bridges” because their age mirrors the post-war generation, includes high-traffic spans like the Longfellow Bridge in Boston and the I-95 bridge over the Merrimack River in Amesbury.

But U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts, who serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, thinks that those who say the state road system is crumbling exaggerate the problem.

“That is a bit of an overstatement,” he said. “They’re not in the greatest condition and they’re probably comparable to most major states.”

Whether or not comparable, the problem is growing. Massachusetts has more than 35,000 mi. of roadway, 89 percent of which is maintained by cities and towns.

Municipalities rely on state aid, which has declined by $45 million between 1997 and 2006. This has forced cities and towns to adopt a “run it till it breaks” mentality, resulting in rapid deterioration of roads and a need for more expensive construction.

Baddour attributes many of the state’s problems to the Big Dig. He said 50 percent of the state’s federal highway dollars are used to pay off the debt.

“We sort of mortgaged our transportation money to pay for the Big Dig,” he said.

The Transportation Finance Commission, created by the Legislature in 2004, issued a set of recommendations in September on how to repair the damage. They included raising the gasoline tax another 11.5-cents per gallon, bringing the total tax to 32.5 cents a gallon. The plan was quickly dismissed as politically unfeasible.

Last month the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority approved a toll increase at the Allston-Brighton toll plazas and at the turnpike tunnel to Logan Airport. The tolls only addressed the authority’s latest budget crunch from Big Dig debt. Another increase is being considered to address long-term deficiencies.

“We don’t have enough money coming in and we spend more money than we should on things we do,” Commission Chairman Steve Silveria said. “There’s no way to solve this problem without getting in new revenue.”

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s casino plan earmarks a significant portion of gambling revenues for bridges and roads. Local aid dollars granted to cities and towns under the plan could be a balm for local roads.

But Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky said the state cannot count on new revenue to solve all of its transportation problems.

“The administration position is that, before they actively make more new revenue for transportation, they want to make sure they can get all the efficiency they can out of the system,” she said. “First look for savings. Then look for revenue.”

Baddour suggested the state needs to consider small adjustments, like fully automated toll booths, along with dramatic measures such as selling roads and bridges to private companies.

“I don’t think we can toll or tax our way out of it,” Baddour said. “We need to be bold and innovative as well as being controversial. We need to do things that are unexpected for Massachusetts to do.”

Taxpayers in the Commonwealth have been down this road — this bumpy road that leads to substandard bridges — before. The history of Massachusetts public infrastructure has historically followed this formula: Build, defer maintenance, then bond for repairs when they can’t wait any longer.

Parks Also in Disrepair

From the Boston Harbor Islands to Pittsfield State Forest in the Berkshires, Massachusetts state parks also are crumbling.

The state’s park system, the fifth largest in the nation, is plagued by eroding trails, collapsing bridges and uncollected trash.

A leader in public open space — Massachusetts Bay colonists established a park system in 1634 — the state now ranks 48th among the states in per capita spending on parks, according to a report by the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

Maintenance problems crop up everywhere:

• Facilities at the Harbor Islands need extensive repairs, including a decaying pier on Georges Island that has been closed to the public and structural problems at Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island.

• Pittsfield State Forest campgrounds need new public restrooms and other repairs.

• Hikers at the 8,000-acre Blue Hills reservation that sprawls from Quincy to Canton encounter washed-out trails, downed trees and clogged culverts.

Such problems follow decades of neglect, underfunding and understaffing that have left the parks system with a $1.2 billion backlog of maintenance projects.

Ken Foley, the deputy director of state parks of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, admits it’s frustrating to maintain the commonwealth’s parks on a budget that has been cut by 25 percent over the past six years.

“We would like recreation to be higher in the pecking order, but how do you fight with public health or public transportation,” he said. “We try to get our piece of it and do the best we can.”

The parks system relies heavily on the state budget for its $8.1 million operating costs. Approximately 85 percent comes from the General Fund, 7 percent from fees and leases and another 8 percent from federal trusts.

The environmental league’s 2006 report, State of the Environment, said most states fund their parks with a much higher percentage of park-generated revenues.

As a result, the agency has lost 30 percent of its staff over the past five years. A highly visible result of that has been in the use of park rangers. Forty of them patrol the Statehouse daily, while there are only six rangers for the 450,000 acres of state-owned parks, forests, parkways, historic buildings, beaches and riverbanks outside of the Boston metropolitan area.

“We are losing seasoned, professional park people,” Foley said. “We haven’t had the funding to bring in people at the bottom and train them at the lower levels.”

In 2003, then-Gov. Mitt Romney promised the state a “world-class” park system, but little was done. A tight state budget has made it tough for Gov. Deval Patrick to do much better.

ELM’s vice president of policy, Nancy Goodman, said Patrick failed to keep his campaign commitment to spend $10 million a year to get the parks back to the budget level of 2001. She fears park funding remains a low priority with the new administration. “He made a commitment he was unable to keep in his first year,” she said.

The governor has taken steps. Under his five-year capital investment plan, the Department of Conservation and Recreation would get $96 million from bond offerings for improvements at parks, an $18.9 million increase over 2007.

But lawmakers and environmentalists agree that more long-range fixes are needed, including public-private partnerships and dedicated state revenue, such as a set percentage of the state sales tax.

“You would have a constant stream of funds that wouldn’t be appropriated through the Legislature,” Goodman said. “This would be additional money.”

Some environmentalists say they would be happy with the bond money for now. The governor is expected to announce the bond bill early next year. The last major financing of park facilities was a $750 million bond bill passed in 2001

“Patrick has the opportunity to bring the parks back to excellent status, once promised by Romney,” said Winston Vaughan, field organizer for Environment Massachusetts. “The environmental bond bill won’t solve all the problems but it can make sure that the parks have funding over the next ten years.”

But even if the bond proposal goes through, Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, vice-chairman of the Joint Committee on Environmental, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, said public-private partnerships need to increase.

“We could have much more corporate involvement in our park system,” he said. “We should be partnering with various agencies, tour operators, and other different groups so that we can have a good quality park system.”

Rep. Michael Rush, D-West Roxbury, chairman of the Legislature State Parks Caucus, said now is the time for lawmakers to invest in the park system for future generations.

“Somebody had the foresight and thoughtfulness 100 years ago to make sure this land was never developed,” he said. “Now we are the stewards.”

Patrick Wants $4.8 Billion to Help

In November — ironically, and independently, mere days after these B.U. Statehouse Program reports came out — Gov. Patrick unveiled a plan to pump $4.8 billion into the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.

The bill requires the state to borrow $2.9 billion. The rest of the money would come from federal funds.

The measure includes $500 million for road and bridge repairs and $100 million for rail projects, including the early planning for a commuter rail line to Fall River and New Bedford. It also sets aside about $700 million to pay for a series of public transit projects the state agreed to build as part of the Big Dig. Projects include an extension of the MBTA Green Line to Somerville and planning for a Red Line-Blue Line connection in Boston.

The money also will help create 10,000 construction jobs, he said.

Patrick conceded that the bill is “a lot of money” but said the state can afford the three-year investment, which he says will help reduce an estimated $15 to $19 billion transportation funding gap over the next 20 years. “We have thought about what the commonwealth can afford,” he said. “We can no longer ignore the need to invest in our transportation system.”

The bill also includes:

• $75 million for the state’s share of a project to improve safety and reduce commute times on the Fitchburg commuter rail line;

• $40 million for improvements at regional airports;

• $20 million for grants to cities and towns to encourage the development of affordable housing near public transit;

• $15 million for transportation grants for small communities of 7,000 or less.

Carrie Russell, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the environmental group was pleased that the bill includes funding for Big Dig-related projects, but said the state needs to put even more money into public transit.

“While the Patrick administration has done a good job given current funding constraints, it is clear that new and bold revenue generating solutions are needed to meet the challenge of maintaining a safe, functional transportation system,” Russell said.

Patrick opposes any increase in the gas tax. The Transportation Finance Commission, which first identified the $15-$19 billion spending gap, recommended the 11.5 cent hike in the state gas tax that legislators plan to reject.

Instead, Patrick wants to dedicate a portion of revenues from three proposed gambling casinos across the state to transportation.

The bill also includes money for the planning stages of the MBTA Blue Line extension to Lynn and the Urban Ring project, designed to help improve public transportation in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Lawmakers plan to hold public hearings on the bill next year.

Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, a member of House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s leadership team, said a sound transportation system is vital to the state’s economic future.

“You can’t have an economy that grows, if people can’t get around,” he said.

The highway and park reports were prepared by the Boston University Statehouse Program and are reprinted with the permission of Professor Fred Bayles, leader of the program. CEG

(This report was made by Keith Howard, LaToya M. Smith, Dan Trudeau, Annya Lot and Yu-Ting Wang of the Boston University Statehouse Bureau with edits and additions by CEG Correspondent James A. Merolla.)