Fewer Federal Dollars Adding To State's Transportation Woes

A row of snow plows moves down I-90 in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A row of snow plows moves down I-90 in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the years since Massachusetts received about $7 billion from the federal government for Boston's massive underground highway project known as the Big Dig, the state - like most others - has seen U.S. funding for transportation upkeep slowly diminish.

The loss of federal highway dollars is but one piece of a transportation financing puzzle in Massachusetts that has left commuters increasingly frustrated and policymakers groping for answers. The Legislature in its last session approved a 3-cent increase in the gasoline tax and leaders have signaled a desire to explore other steps, though Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has ruled out further taxes and fees for now.

According to figures compiled by The Associated Press, money available to Massachusetts from the Federal Highway Trust Fund dropped 3.1 percent between the 2008 and 2013 fiscal years. That meant fewer resources for shoring up aging roads and creaky bridges.

The state's share dropped from about $680 million to $654 million between 2010 and 2011, and again from $658 million to $620 million between 2012 and 2013.

Adjusting the figures for inflation, Massachusetts has seen a 10.1 percent reduction in highway trust fund receipts over five years.

And the state has actually fared better than many others. Overall money available to states from the trust fund declined 3.5 percent - 10.9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars - and nearly 30 states saw a larger percentage drop in federal funding drop than Massachusetts during the period, according to the analysis.

The federal gas tax, which supports the trust fund, has not risen from 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.

In Massachusetts, a brutal stretch of winter weather over the past several weeks has brought the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to its knees, forcing the Boston-area's aging transit system to close several times and offer limited service when operating.

While the public's attention of late has focused on the T, advocates say highways and bridges aren't faring much better. A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found more than half of the state's bridges were either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The same report found 19 percent of major roadways in poor condition.

Debt incurred on the state's share of the Big Dig costs has only exacerbated the funding crunch.

"The reality is that we've underfunded transportation in Massachusetts and in this country for at least 20-plus years," said state Sen. Thomas McGee, co-chair of the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

Lawmakers have sought a variety of short- and long-term fixes for crumbling infrastructure. A 2008 law directed $3 billion toward bridge repairs, including a $260 million reconstruction of the historic Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge.

But the state's gas tax had not budged since 1991 until lawmakers in 2013 approved a transportation financing bill that included the 3-cent hike to 24 cents per gallon. The law was expected to raise about $600 million in annual additional funds for roads, bridges and public transit by 2018.

That funding plan was a scaled-back version of one offered by then-Gov. Deval Patrick that included a hike in the state's income tax, but was widely viewed as a first step in dealing with the transportation funding shortfall.

"It's important to understand the transportation finance act didn't try to solve all the problems in one fell swoop, it tried to solve about half the problem," said Rafael Mares, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group that supports modernization of the state's transportation system with greater emphasis on public transit.

But even the revenue targets of the scaled-down bill are unlikely to be reached. In November, voters repealed an indexing provision that automatically tied future increases in the gas tax to inflation. Backers of the repeal effort, including Baker, said indexing amounted to taxation without representation.

Without indexing, Mares projects the state will lose $27 million in potential transportation funding in the current fiscal year, and an average of $100 million per year over the next ten years.

This article was originally published on February 21, 2015.



More from WBUR

Listen Live