Transpo plan devotes most capital $$$ to two areas

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BOSTON — The state’s transportation department would devote 80 percent of its more than $14.3 billion capital dollars to system improvement and modernization with roughly equal investments in transit and rail as would be spent on roads and bridges, under a plan presented Wednesday.

“It’s focused on improving the reliability of the existing transportation system,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Directors on Wednesday. She said, “That’s really where we can benefit the most people.”

Last year state officials identified a $7.3 billion price-tag for bringing the MBTA’s system into a state of good repair. The total cost of eliminating that good repair backlog over the next 25 years is $24.8 billion, including inflation, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board reported in December.

The $14.3 billion five-year capital plan proposal would spend nearly $5 billion on upgrades to the ailing MBTA.

The $400 million slotted for pavement improvement projects in the plan would be a 60 percent increase over prior spending levels, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

The $2 billion that would be devoted to bridge infrastructure would reduce the state’s structurally deficient bridges to 2 percent if extended over 10 years, according to MassDOT presentation.

Pollack said the Accelerated Bridge Program initiated by the Patrick administration had succeeded in improving the major spans around the state, leaving some smaller bridges still in need of work.

“We’re not doing $500 million bridges anymore. We’re doing $75 million bridges,” Pollack said. A $200 million bill before the Legislature funding local road funding would also offer an additional $50 million for small local bridges.

Pollack said the plan was built around priorities rather than specific projects with emphasis on reliability, modernization and capacity building. The plan is also the first “fully integrated capital plan” between the MBTA and MassDOT, Pollack said.

“What’s new and good is that the MBTA and MassDOT capital investment plans have finally been combined,” Rafael Mares, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program, wrote in an email. “What is old and bad is that the Commonwealth still does not have sufficient dollars to fully fund its transportation system.”

More information on the projects included in the plan will be made available at a Capital Program Committee meeting, Pollack said.

Just over half of the roughly $2 billion set aside for expansion projects in the capital plan would go toward the Green Line Extension – a project whose budget overruns have put it in limbo. The plan includes funding for the design and permitting of other major projects including South Coast Rail, a commuter rail station in Allston, the expansion of South Station and up to $2 million for a reevaluation of the competing project of a rail link between North and South stations.

The plan anticipates spending $148 million for “early action projects,” design and permitting on the South Coast Rail bringing commuter rail to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford.

Responding to a question from Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan, a member of the MassDOT board, Pollack said South Station expansion and South Coast Rail could be candidates for public-private partnerships.

Pollack said she discouraged staff from including price-tags on projects until some substantial design work had been completed. A former advocate at the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued the state to undertake the Green Line Extension, Pollack said she had looked through old files and believes it had previously been estimated at $370 million. The project was put on hold last year after transportation officials determined it could cost as much as $3 billion, a roughly 50 percent increase over the most recent estimate.

Discussing the use of MBTA operating budget revenue to pay for capital projects on the T, Pollack noted the funding will not carry debt service costs and its use avoids pushing the state toward its statutory debt limit.

“The Commonwealth has a statutory debt limit and we are at it,” said Pollack, anticipating the debt ceiling would be hit in the next couple of years.

If the MBTA continues to receive $187 million through the state budget, it could spend $150 million per year on so-called pay-go capital, or about 11 percent of its capital program, according to the MBTA.

Pollack did not seek a vote on the five-year plan Wednesday and said decisions on the capital plan could be expected in May.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service