Auditor Suzanne Bump chronicles dire state of infrastructure in Western Mass
Says federal money should be invested in region
WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENTS have long bemoaned their standing in “a tale of two Commonwealths.” The urban, eastern part of the state, they say, sucks up most of the attention – and funding — on Beacon Hill, while wide swaths of Western Massachusetts, which deal with far different concerns, are often overlooked. The economic boom that has benefitted the Boston region in recent decades has largely bypassed the state’s four westernmost counties, where property values remain low and the population is aging as young people seek jobs elsewhere.
A new report by Auditor Suzanne Bump, being released Tuesday, argues that the state needs to pay more attention to ailing infrastructure in Western Massachusetts.
“Aging and declining populations, stagnant or decreasing property values, increased education costs, and statewide policies that benefit urban areas all serve to disadvantage the largely rural areas in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties,” the report says. “Small municipal staffs without professional engineers, grant writers, or planners are challenged to pursue funding for infrastructure, and state eligibility requirements or formulas make them ineligible for certain funds altogether.”
The report is being released as state budget writers are deciding how to distribute a huge influx of federal COVID-19 relief money. If Congresses passes a federal infrastructure bill, that could create another new pot of money, as could the success of a 2022 ballot question that would raise the tax rate on income over $1 million. Bump argues that some of this money should be spent in a targeted way to make major investments in infrastructure in Western Massachusetts. She plans to testify on Tuesday at a joint hearing of the House and Senate ways and means committees, which will determining how to spend federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Bump, a longtime resident of Great Barrington, said she has seen the “east-west divide.” “Now we have this golden opportunity we’ll never have again to finally invest in these communities,” she said.
Bump’s report did not put a specific dollar figure on how much more money she wants to see lawmakers spend on Western Massachusetts infrastructure.
But she could be a powerful advocate for a region that often lacks political clout – and that is now set to lose even more representation due to redistricting, since the region’s population did not grow as fast as eastern Massachusetts’ over the last decade.
The report looks at the region’s challenges related to broadband, roadways, and municipal buildings.
For years, state officials have tried to bring broadband internet to every town Western Massachusetts. But the report says internet speeds remain much slower in parts of Western Massachusetts than Eastern Massachusetts. In rural communities, there is less financial incentive for private companies to offer robust internet services since they have fewer customers across a larger area. A lack of fast internet stymies the region’s ability to attract businesses.
Transportation is also ailing. According to the report, a lack of professional engineers and planners in small towns often leads to deferring major projects in favor of small repairs, resulting in maintenance backlogs. Of more than 1,400 bridges in Western Massachusetts, 62 percent are rated as in “fair” condition and 9 percent in “poor” condition – compared to the state average of 7.5 percent of bridges ranked “poor.” The auditor’s office surveyed town officials in 101 Western Massachusetts communities. Of 45 who responded, eight ranked their roads a “B,” 27 a “C,” and nine a “D.”
Public buildings are also problematic. The Pittsfield police work in a 1939 station that has no space for meetings or parking for police cars, and no sight separation between male and female holding cells. The police chief worries that he will no longer be able to house prisoners there without a heating upgrade. In surveys, many town administrators said their public safety buildings were too small. One fire station lacked bathrooms.
Bump said the reason for these struggles often comes down to mismatch between revenue and needs in the region. Western Massachusetts has a large geographic area, so there are more road miles to maintain. One particular road in Berkshire County has 200 culverts. But the region has fewer people, fewer businesses, and lower property values, resulting in less tax money. Bump says state funding formulas and earmark processes tend to favor urban and suburban areas.
For example, the Chapter 90 formula to fund road improvements considers not only road miles, but also population and employment – factors that disadvantage small towns. The auditor’s office estimates that to adequately maintain their roads, towns in the four western counties would need an additional $75 million a year. Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, has proposed changing the formula to place more value on road mileage and less on the other factors, a proposal that Bump’s report endorses. She also wants to increase Chapter 90 funding from $200 million to $300 million annually.
Some programs require communities to pay for professional planning and engineering before applying for a grant, so communities with no professional planning staff must decide whether it is worth spending money on a grant writer or engineer – money that could otherwise go to repairs — in the hopes of winning a competitive grant.
Other programs are too small to meet demand. A Municipal Small Bridge Program, which funds small bridge and culvert repairs, provides a maximum grant of $500,000, but the median cost of replacing a small bridge is $680,000. In fiscal 2021, the program received requests for $6.8 million and paid out just $806,000.
Bump’s report says that some communities let bridges fail so they will become eligible for emergency replacement, rather than having to go through a more costly process that requires them to upgrade to modern engineering and environmental standards.Bump recommends revamping state grant and assistance programs to better serve smaller communities and creating a new agency with a dedicated revenue stream devoted to improving infrastructure in underserved areas.
Without greater investment, she said, the future of Western Massachusetts is “not a very rosy picture.”