Lawmakers are revising road funding formula
Rural communities have complained of being shortchanged
THE HOUSE’S TRANSPORTATION policy leader pledged Wednesday that lawmakers will consider revising the state’s road and bridge funding formula, an indication that years of complaints by rural lawmakers may finally pay off.
“The Chapter 90 allocation is based on a population area road mile formula that was developed by MassDOT decades ago,” said Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who is the House chair of the Transportation Committee. “There’s no question that some examination of how that formula is determined should occur.”
Straus said when a revision could happen is still to be determined. “That may occur at a committee level, it may occur in recommendations from House Ways and Means, it may occur during budget debate, it’s hard to tell,” Straus said.
Straus made his comments on the House floor during a debate over an amendment to a supplemental budget bill that would have added an additional $100 million to the Chapter 90 formula, the formula that provides money to every city and town annually for road and bridge repairs.
Straus said the problem with adding the extra $100 million is a “fairness question with regard to the Chapter 90 allocation that many colleagues have been talking about and bringing up for years.” Since discussion is ongoing about revising the formula, Straus said by supporting additional money now, “you will be effectively taking away from yourselves the ability to engage in that discussion about how we allocate additional Chapter 90 money.”
The problem that rural lawmakers have been complaining about is that the funding formula, established in 1972, is based on population, employment, and road mileage. Under the calculation, 58.33 percent of the money is distributed based on road miles, and 20.83 percent each is based on employment and population. Some communities in central and Western Massachusetts are large geographically but have few people – so they have lots of roads to maintain but get less money from the formula due to population. They also have a smaller tax base from which to raise additional money.
Lawmakers have in recent years been putting $200 million a year into Chapter 90 funding.
Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, said he was excited to hear Straus talk about revamping the formula. “I think we’re building some momentum,” Pignatelli said. “There are people across the commonwealth that see a big discrepancy in this formula, and it needs to be addressed.”
Pignatelli wants the formula to be based primarily on road miles, not population or employment. “It’s unfair,” he said. “There’s three criteria in this formula, and two of the three rural towns will never achieve.”The problem, of course, is that any formula that creates winners will also create losers, unless more money is allocated. And lawmakers from more populous areas are unlikely to support a formula shift that lowers the allocation to their communities.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association has been advocating for years for more Chapter 90 money to be distributed annually, arguing that the current funding level does not come close to meeting communities’ needs. One potential advantage to lawmakers in considering a formula revamp this year is the state is swimming in money, both surplus tax revenue and federal recovery aid. So lawmakers could choose to add more money into the formula and hold communities harmless, so that no one loses money and a revision becomes politically viable.