Regional transportation plans starved, despite stimulus package

Yesterday, I sat in on a meeting where the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization struggled to define the long-term parameters of a financially realistic Transportation Improvement Plan. Locally, the tight planning environment will likely mean further delay in the Belmont-Trapelo Corridor project (my primary concern in the meeting) and perhaps other projects.
The MPO is charged with the allocation of federal highway funds (and state matching funds) to specific road and transit projects. The Transportation Improvement Plan is essentially the list of approved projects. The MPO approves a new three year TIP each year, but, the federal government has not approved the new plans since 2006, questioning the funding for the plans. The federal rules permit amendments to an approved TIP that do not change the air quality parameters of the TIP, so the MPO, for the past three years, has been working with the 2007-10 TIP with modest amendments.

The discussion yesterday included a long term overview of the statewide availability of transportation operations and improvement funds. The overview built in the new sales tax revenue allocated to transportation by the legislature’s new budget.

The 20-year state-wide plan contemplates very limited public transportation improvement — including design only for the Red-line to Blue-line connector. The only major projects that are actually funded are the Green line extension and Fitchburg line rail improvements. The plan does not allow for any reduction in the $2 billion backlog in MBTA maintenance, but it will keep the backlog to roughly that level. The plan assumes fare increases every few years.

The total amount of discretionary funding allocable to the Boston MPO is approximately $60 million per year for the next three years. Starting in 2011 and extending for three years, the MPO is likely to devote almost $72 million to one project, the Crosby’s corner redesign — that’s the bend in Route 2 by the Mobil Station in Concord. That huge project will crowd out other good projects like the Belmont-Trapelo Corridor project. There is some talk of delaying Crosby’s corner to make more room, but timing is the only question: The project will almost certainly go forward — the state has already begun taking properties for the right-of-way expansion.

Federal stimulus funding has not helped as much as some of us had earlier hoped because of the requirement that projects be “shovel-ready”. Most projects on the TIP are not “shovel ready” — design issues and right-of-way issues are not often not finally resolved until the year the that the project is actually to start.

So, instead of clearing the queue in the TIP process, the stimulus package has led to a lot of add-on projects that are easy to start, like resurfacing and sign-repair projects. These appear on the TIP as “non-target” projects — outside the basic targets. One wave of projects went out to bid by June 30, 2009 and there is an expected second wave going out by January or February — too soon to include the Belmont-Trapelo project. There is a hope that more stimulus funding may become available, but there is no additional funding that can be included in planning.

In theory, the stimulus funds are not available for road projects of purely local interest, but it appears that there some exceptions to this and I intend to follow up further on the possibility of funding for local roads needs.

The total funded amount in the 2009 TIP is $1.1 billion — much more than the discretionary amount that allocated through the exhaustive TIP process. Half of that goes to federally-aided public transit projects and most of the rest goes to larger highway projects, but $55 million goes to an assortment of federally earmarked projects, some of which are quite local in impact. This seems another area where we should be doing better at obtaining funding.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.