Western Massachusetts Bridges and Roads Need ‘Rural Rescue Plan’, Listener Suzanne Bump Says

As the legislature focuses on plans to spend billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding, Auditor Suzanne Bump calls for a “rural bailout” that would help the more than 100, mostly small communities of western Massachusetts, to pay to upgrade roads, bridges and municipal buildings.

Bump, who once resided in Great Barrington, said many towns and villages in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties are struggling to make critical infrastructure improvements, relying heavily on state aid while the commercial tax bases have dried up and populations have decimated, exerting additional pressure. on property taxes.

“Now we have this golden opportunity that we will never have to invest in these communities again,” Bump said, previewing the testimony she will give Tuesday at the last Legislative Assembly hearing on how to spend nearly $ 5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Prior to his testimony, the auditor’s office will issue a new 105-page report focused on public infrastructure needs in western Massachusetts. Easton Democrat calls for more money to flow through the Chapter 90 road repair program and for the funding formula to be overhauled to provide greater support to communities with extensive road networks, but small declining populations and job bases.

Bump also wants a new state agency set up to support the construction of municipal buildings, similar to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which generates a one-cent income on the 6.25% sales tax. state to help fund $ 1 billion in school construction. every year. She said there are places in western Massachusetts where fire trucks stay out year-round because they don’t fit into the station, and she said the Department’s reservation office Pittsfield police are often used as a backdrop for filmmakers “who want to portray a decrepit 1940s, 1950s police station.

“The tourism economy will only take the region so far, and not everyone can work at Berkshire Medical Center,” Bump said. “We need this infrastructure to rebuild and attract private investment. “

The auditor, who is not running for re-election in 2022, said his office had not identified a dedicated funding source for the new building authority, but suggested that the growing industry’s revenue from cannabis could be a place lawmakers could turn to.

In addition to the influx of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, lawmakers this fall are thinking about how to spend a FY2021 surplus and are watching Congress where Democrats are struggling to pass a huge package of infrastructure that would send even more money to Massachusetts.

Bump did not say how much money she said should be set aside for infrastructure in western Massachusetts, but said “commitments should be made now to make future resource allocations.”

The auditor also said the funding situation in western Massachusetts could worsen due to the redistribution if population growth near the coast results in fewer representatives in the legislature defending the needs of the people. four westernmost counties.

“The fact that our population and our economy are so heavily concentrated in one area of ​​the state means that there are many more city and suburban advocates making their way onto Beacon Hill. That’s what makes it an opportunity we can’t afford to miss for Western Massachusetts, ”Bumpsaid said.

The report encompasses the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s long-standing demand to increase Chapter 90 annual funding from $ 200 million to at least $ 300 million, and it said the formula that has not been adjusted since 1972 needs to be updated.

The current Chapter 90 formula allocates funding based on road mileage, population and employment levels. While communities in Suffolk County received an average of $ 12,169 per kilometer of road in fiscal year 2021, towns in Franklin County received only $ 4,383 due to the weight that the formula gives to population and employment levels, according to the report.

Representative Smitty Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, introduced a bill (H 3572) that would shift around 11% of the formula weight to road mileage and away from people and jobs. Bump said he should be “taken seriously”.

The auditor’s report also calls for more money to be invested in popular but underfunded programs like Small Town Roadside Assistance (STRAP) and Small Bridge and Poncelet programs. Only $ 3.2 million worth of projects in western Massachusetts were funded in FY 2022 through STRAP from $ 20.6 million in grant applications.

Bump said STRAP grants also have “limited value” when capped at $ 1 million and the average culvert replacement costs $ 850,000, calling for the cap to be lifted.

“They just can’t afford to make these repairs,” Bump said.

Finally, the report calls for continued investment in broadband infrastructure in western Massachusetts.

The report was produced by Bump’s local mandates division, and DLM director Ben Tafoya said the results were based on surveys sent to 101 communities in the four westernmost counties.

The division collected responses from 46 communities, including Springfield, which was analyzed separately due to its size. Additional interviews were conducted with regional planners and staff of executive branch agencies that administer the grant programs.

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