One of the things we are especially mindful of living in rural Western Massachusetts is how critical transportation issues are to our way of life. Unlike the millions of people who live in and around Boston we can’t just hop onto the subway, taking one of the many frequent trains and buses to our medical appointments, school, work, recreation and shopping. We have to jump into our cars to meet most of our daily needs and responsibilities.
It is true that increasingly we can hop on to a bike trail, and many do. But they don’t go everywhere and with the long distances between home and our common destinations, it isn’t practical for most of us, most of the time. And, it is true that although routes and frequency are limited, the availability of public transportation is growing. And, yes, the work on improving both passenger and freight rail has in recent years received increasing focus by both our state and federal governments. But, the options are still extremely limited and often less efficient than car travel. All of this said, we can be reassured that there has been increased progress in meeting our needs here in Western Massachusetts.
Bridge & Road Projects
After a number of years of almost all road and bridge dollars going into the Big Dig in Boston, the local delegation joined forces with those in Northeastern and Southeastern Massachusetts, insisting that we start getting our fair share of road and bridge money again. We won a commitment for at least $400 million a year for projects outside of the Big Dig. The money started to flow again for our projects, including a significant number in the communities Stan represents in the Senate. Some highlights include the reconstruction of three of the region’s major bridges—Hampshire County’s Coolidge Bridge, Franklin County’s Gill-Montague Bridge, and the Deerfield-Sunderland Bridge. Scores of smaller bridges and roads received long needed attention, including the reconstruction of Route 66 in Northampton and the safety improvement projects along Route 2 from Phillipston to Greenfield.
Municipal Road Funding
During this period Stan also helped to secure special allocations for a number of transportation related programs that serve small and rural communities, including the STRAP program which funds critical projects in the smallest of our communities. Stan follows the STRAP program very closely. He actually drafted the legislation that created the program when he worked for his predecessor, then State Senator John Olver! The PWED Program, which funds projects that are tied to economic development, is another program that Stan takes special interest in because it is important for economic development. Stan has worked with communities and businesses to secure many millions of dollars through this program to help retain and create jobs in the region.
Both STRAP and PWED were recently merged with the MassWorks Program. Under the MassWorks 2011 guidelines the amount available for a small town public safety project has increased to $1 million, and eligible communities will be able to apply once every three years. MassWorks applications are due in the first week of September.
Several years ago, Stan joined with Berkshire County’s State Representative Dan Bosley to organize the first ever Regional Transportation Authorities Caucus. The Caucus brought together members from the House and Senate concerned with expanding public transportation services outside of the Greater Boston service area. Many people are not aware, but outside of Greater Boston, public transportation is provided solely by 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) which include the Pioneer Valley Regional Transit Authority and the Franklin Regional Transit Authority in Western Massachusetts.
The Caucus has had considerable success. With Stan as Senate co-chair, the caucus was able to pass legislation to allow the Commonwealth to back up the borrowing of RTAs. This change saves the RTAs, and therefore local governments and riders, millions of dollars each year in interest payments.
The Caucus has also been able to protect funding during difficult economic times and has created a multi-year plan to improve efficiency and eventually increase funding for these 15 entities which provide more than 25 million trips a year for people who choose public transportation.
Federal Toll Credit Program
Stan is especially proud of the work that the Caucus did which led to the discovery of an untapped source of federal transportation funding. Stan passed legislation directing state transportation officials to join the Federal Toll Credit Program. They did so and the Commonwealth has already received nearly $100 million dollars from the program. An average of $45 million a year can be expected in the years to come.
Forward Funding of RTAs
Stan and his allies uncovered the toll credit program as a funding source as they searched for a way to forward fund the RTAs. “Forward funding” means that a state pays for operations in the same fiscal year they are provided. Unlike other state agencies, which are “forward funded”, the RTAs must borrow the money they will need to operate each year and then pay back those loans once they are reimbursed by the state. This means the RTAs are burdened by interest payments which is money that could be better used to improve their transportation services. Although forward funding has not yet been implemented, legislation has been approved that requires it to be done within the next two years. This change, when fully implemented, will save millions more each year in borrowing costs required under the current payment system.
Another point of pride for Stan is the work he did in 2009 to organize a New England Rail Summit, convening all of the Secretaries of Transportation and Legislative Transportation Committee Chairs to discuss the future of passenger and freight rail in New England. This was an effort to get these officials working together so that the region would be organized and prepared to compete for growing federal funding for rail improvements. Stan worked with the Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission and Congressman Olver’s office to bring more than 150 interested people and agencies together for this first-time meeting. It was an exciting event that laid the groundwork for a series of agreements and proposals bringing significant federal funding to the region already with more to come!