by Chris Lisinski / via Banker & Tradesman
Efforts to replace the MBTA’s entire Green Line trolley fleet, a statewide move toward electric vehicle adoption, and projects to make infrastructure more resilient in the face of climate change impacts would all get a boost under a $9.7 billion bond bill Gov. Charlie Baker outlined on Thursday.
Nearly two months after he first hinted at plans to file a new transportation bond bill, Baker offered an initial glimpse at a proposal the head of the MBTA expects will play a “catalytic role” to maximize money headed to Massachusetts under a new federal infrastructure law.
Once filed, the legislation will kick off debate over years of investments in the state’s pothole-dotted roads and bridges, aging public transit, and infrastructure ill-equipped to withstand the brunt of climate change.
It’s also a proposal likely to earn approval from lawmakers in the next few months, although House and Senate Democrats are likely to tailor priorities to their preferences and could drive up the bill’s bottom line.
“This is a piece of legislation that talks about infrastructure, but it’s clearly about climate, it’s about mobility, it’s about our communities, it’s about our economy. It ties everything together,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who joined Baker and top deputies to unveil a broadstrokes outline of the bill in Worcester. “We have an opportunity now with these funds to really put them to work in an accelerated fashion.”
Big Investments Statewide
Baker’s office published a summary breaking down some of the highlights in the bill – $2.8 billion of which stems from the increased formula funding in the new federal infrastructure law – but did not make a copy of the legislation available in the hours following Baker’s press conference.
The bond bill calls for $5.4 billion in highway funding, $2.2 billion for the MBTA, $591 million for regional transit authorities, and $1.4 billion to improve environmental infrastructure, according to Baker.
Massachusetts is in line to receive about $9.5 billion over the next five years under the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in November, representing a combination of reauthorized and newly approved funds. To make use of the money, Baker said, lawmakers need to approve the range of spending on transportation and infrastructure projects upfront, including portions that will be covered by federal funds.
“The way this works is the state authorizes, the state moves forward, the state spends, and the federal government reimburses,” Baker said. “It’s critical for us to get this legislation passed as quickly as we possibly can, which will then enable us to move forward aggressively putting this $9.7 billion series of projects to work throughout Massachusetts over the next five years.”
‘We’re in this Game in a Big Way’
Baker said he conceives of the bill as containing two major buckets: $6.2 billion representing a “combination of state and federal money” that will flow through existing formula programs over the next five years, and $3.5 billion to boost the state’s chances of winning additional federal dollars available via grant programs.
Discretionary and competitive grants offer a “significant amount of resources,” Baker said. But to tap into the pot of additional federal resources, states must commit their own money.
“What the commonwealth is doing by putting that $3.5 billion in the bond bill is basically showing the federal government that it’s in the game and has money on the table and ready to go,” said Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City. “It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re in this game in a big way, and don’t question Massachusetts when it comes to whether or not we’ll be able to come up with a match because the money’s right on the table.’”
In the eyes of the administration, the returns on that effort could be substantial: Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler said Massachusetts could receive $2 billion to $3 billion in discretionary grant funding over the next five years thanks to the federal package.
Transportation advocates for months have been prodding the Baker administration and the legislature to make tapping into grant dollars a top priority, warning that the infrastructure law could have a muted impact if the Bay State falls behind other states.
Massachusetts has already missed out on some other federal transportation funding options. The MBTA did not apply for an American Rescue Plan Act-funded grant to preserve transit jobs after staff concluded they would not be able to demonstrate need as the program required, leaving officials to watch as 18 other states shared $2.2 billion in additional aid.
Dimino said he is optimistic that Baker’s legislation puts Massachusetts on strong footing to make the most of the moment, calling it “exactly what the commonwealth needs to position itself to move forward with a robust, modernized transportation system.”
“The opportunity to have $3.5 billion to leverage new federal dollars that are coming and are going to be competitive puts Massachusetts in a very good place to be hopefully in front of the line,” Dimino said.
Brand-New Trains, EV Chargers Funded
The bill – which Baker dubbed an Act Relative to Massachusetts’s Transportation Resources and Climate, or MassTRAC – includes $400 million to support efforts to modernize MBTA infrastructure and vehicles and another $830 million toward purchase of a brand-new fleet of Green Line trolleys. New vehicles would be more energy efficient than the oldest Green Line trains still in use today, many of which date back 20 to 30 years, according to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.
Other major T projects supported by the legislation include reconstruction of Worcester’s commuter rail station and construction of a new bus maintenance facility in Quincy, which is necessary to deploy all-electric buses across the transit system.
“The funding in MassTRAC plays a catalytic role in allowing the MBTA to fully utilize these funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law, both by allowing us to provide the match for federal formula funds and also to strengthen our competitive position as we compete,” Poftak said. “We will compete and we will win future discretionary funding opportunities.”
With the transportation sector representing about 42 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, environmental infrastructure is a focus of the legislation and the target for much of the proposed funding.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said the investments outlined in the bill “will help us reduce carbon emissions in every sector of our transportation system.” That includes $200 million designed to match federal funds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electric school buses.
Theoharides referenced the noise emanating from the Interstate 290 bridge over Worcester’s East Central Street, which was the backdrop for Thursday’s announcement and whose replacement project would be partly funded by the legislation.
“In the next 10 years, we can be here standing by this bridge and be able to hear each other,” Theoharides said. “Something that we don’t talk about with electric vehicles – we talk about the fact that they reduce pollution, they significantly reduce carbon emissions, they also are virtually silent. I bet in 10 years, if we’re standing here again, we could actually hear each other talk.”
“These vehicles are clean, they’re silent, they don’t pollute communities, and we have a number of ways to really bump up the availability of these vehicles and the systems that support them through this bill,” she added.