Under the Hood of the MA Transportation System: How have our roads and bridges suffered from underfunding?

Christine Chilingerian

This post is part of a series on transportation issues affecting Massachusetts. Look for more from Rafael Mares and Christine Chilingerian in the coming weeks. To stay up to date, visit this www.clf.org/blog/tag/MA4Trans/ or follow the hashtag #MA4TRANS on Twitter.

Does it seem as though your car is hitting nasty potholes with ever-increasing frequency? That’s because it probably is.

Across the state, our local roads are decaying. Although Massachusetts law, under Chapter 90, reimburses municipalities for road repairs, they aren’t receiving enough. An estimated $562 million is the amount of annual funding required to maintain the streets in a “state of good repair”; cities and towns, however, must make do with only $200 million, or about 36% of the funds that are actually needed. As a result, our roads are suffering, and the safety of our drivers along with them.

Passed in 1973, Chapter 90 compensates cities and towns for expenditures made on maintenance of local roads. In the 40 years since Chapter 90 was passed, the costs of construction have gone up dramatically, essentially reducing the value of Chapter 90 funds and their ability to solve the very problems they were designed to solve. As a result, municipalities are forced to dig into local revenues as well as cut important services, such as salaries for teachers or police officers, in an effort to bridge the funding gap. Less affluent communities are left in the lurch when it comes to maintenance, and are forced to look on helplessly as local infrastructure degrades. This presents the ultimate Catch-22 of the situation: minor cracks in the pavement, when left untended due to budget constraints, soon require far more expensive rehabilitation than a quick patch for communities already unable to afford them.

Massachusetts’s bridges are in a similar state of disrepair. As of January 2013, there were 436 structurally deficient bridges out of a total 4500 owned by municipalities or the state. That means, for every 10 bridges you drive over in the state, at least one of them could be deficient. Ask yourself: does that make you feel safe?

To be fair, “structurally deficient” doesn’t necessarily mean that the bridge is unsound or about to collapse. Once a bridge has deteriorated to a certain degree, an immediate overhaul becomes necessary to avert restrictions on its use. For example, many deficient bridges are subject to weight restrictions, and of these, 38 have degraded to a degree forcing access to be closed off. Since 2008, MassDOT has implemented the Accelerated Bridge Program and has begun the long-overdue process of restoring neglected bridges. Over the last five years, the Program has completed 121 bridges, and expects to restore more than 200 by 2016. Once the Program ends, however, bridges will continue to atrophy and crumble. Without the Program, there would still be upwards of 543 structurally deficient bridges in the state – yet, even with the Program, there will be over 400 deficient bridges left untouched on the day the work ends. Due to the perpetual need for upkeep, Massachusetts really can’t afford to lose initiatives like the Accelerated Bridge Program.

The maintenance backlog precipitates from years of neglect due to underfunding. In order to reverse it, continued investment in programs like the Accelerated Bridge Program is critical. Without devoting resources to infrastructure today, the epidemic of potholes and crumbling bridges will continue its relentless advance.

So the next time you curse out your mayor when next you drive over a particularly treacherous pothole, think twice: that pothole is part of a larger problem. You can be sure people are feeling it in every corner, and every car, of the Bay state.



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