Senate, House now in agreement on $300M road program

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The Senate approved legislation Thursday that would allocate $300 million to a municipal road and bridge maintenance program and create a new, larger board of directors to oversee the MBTA, teeing up a potentially crunched negotiation process with the House after several months of inaction.

In the first formal session since senators agreed this week to new rules for remote debate and roll call voting, the Senate approved the bill (S 2746) on an unrecorded voice vote with no debate.

The legislation directs $300 million to the Chapter 90 program that reimburses cities and towns for road and bridge repairs and projects. The vote means both branches are now on record supporting $100 million more than previous years to the annual authorization that cities and towns look for each year in early spring.

The bill also creates a brand-new MBTA Board of Directors with seven members, up from the current five, including the secretary of transportation and someone chosen by the MBTA Advisory Board group that represents cities and towns within the T’s service area.

Sen. Joseph Boncore, co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said during Thursday’s session that the bill is “a first step.”

“Prior to this pandemic, our transportation system was in desperate need of investment, modernization and reform,” he said. “Now, the global pandemic and the cause for civil rights have only underscored the need to improve transportation.”

All four amendments to the legislation, including one from Boston Sen. Nick Collins that would have given the city a designated seat on the board, were withdrawn without any discussion. The Senate passed the bill following introductory in-person remarks from Boncore and Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.

The two issues in the Senate bill were tackled by the House in March — about a week before Gov. Charlie Baker declared the COVID-19 state of emergency — as part of larger bills creating new taxes and fees to fund transportation and authorizing $18 billion in long-term borrowing to fund transit and infrastructure projects.

Both bills sat pending in the Senate for more than three months as attention shifted to pandemic response, and it remains unclear whether or how the Senate plans to address the remainder of their contents.

Legislative leaders have also not outlined plans to settle their policy and procedural differences on road funding and the T board, but they have a narrow window in which to do so if they want to outline the future of MBTA oversight before the existing Fiscal and Management Control Board expires on June 30.

If no successor or extension is in place, control would revert to the Department of Transportation Board of Directors, a step that Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore said this week would have “huge” impacts.

Baker and the Legislature created the FMCB in the wake of the disastrous winter of 2015 that brought repeated shutdowns on the T, empowering it to reform what many critics deemed a bloated, inefficient and indebted agency. He then extended the board another two years in 2018, but it will expire at the end of the month and another extension is not possible without legislation.

In his fiscal 2021 budget proposal, Baker also proposed creating a new seven-member board including the transportation secretary and an MBTA Advisory Board appointee, though his board would oversee both the MBTA and the Department of Transportation.

The Senate bill would empower the new board to hire the T’s general manager, a responsibility that currently rests with the transportation secretary. The House bill did not include that provision.

Asked about that language during an unrelated Thursday press conference, Baker said he believes the governor should maintain a role in appointing the MBTA’s top leader. He also said one of the key funding mechanisms for the T is dedicated revenue from the state’s sales tax, which means many Massachusetts residents effectively pay into a system they do not use.

“The executive branch, the administration, me, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of transportation — (we) own a big piece of the accountability for what happens there, and that translates into a far more transparent agency that I believe is a lot more accountable to the public,” Baker said. “Going forward, the more accountable that the T can be and the operation and leadership of the T can be to the executive branch and, by definition, to the governor and lieutenant governor, the better off we’re all going to be.”

Boncore said the Chapter 90 authorization, which won’t be settled until the House and Senate agree to a final vehicle, will be the latest the Legislature has resolved that matter in recent memory.

Cities and towns look to Beacon Hill every year for passage of the bill as early as possible, often arguing that although it authorizes funding reimbursement for the next fiscal year, they need the certainty early to help secure projects in the current construction season.

This year’s season has been unusual, with some construction projects shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19 and traffic at a fraction of typical levels in April and May.

Both branches have now approved language increasing the annual funding to $300 million after years of holding it at $200 million despite pleas from municipalities for more money. The state’s revenue outlook is dire because of the pandemic, with fiscal year 2020 tax revenues lagging projections $2.25 billion and fiscal year 2021 projections also pointing toward revenues declining by billions of dollars from pre-pandemic estimates.

(Sam Doran and Colin A. Young contributed reporting.)

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