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Senator Spilka Testifies on MPO Reform, Train Whistles at Transportation Hearing

September 10, 2009

September 10, 2009

Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) today offered testimony on two transportation bills of significance to her district. The first, An Act Relative to Fairness and Equity in Regional Transportation Planning, would alter the way federal transportation investments are distributed throughout the state. The second, An Act Assisting Towns to Create Quiet Zones for At-Grade Rail Crossings, would help municipalities mitigate the noise caused by trains crossing through residential areas.

An Act Relative to Fairness and Equity in Regional Transportation Planning addresses the inequities caused by the existing state structure of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs. An MPO is a regional body made up of state, regional and local officials and is responsible for conducting transportation planning and programming. Each MPO is responsible for conducting transportation planning within its region and annually developing a Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP. Projects that are selected for the TIP are then eligible for federal dollars, including federal stimulus investment.

“We have all become more aware how crucial these regional organizations are recently, as MPOs were the gatekeepers for all federal stimulus transportation funds,” stated Senator Spilka at the hearing. “Despite being heralded time and again as an economic engine for the Commonwealth, the MetroWest region was not awarded a single transportation stimulus project this year. Transportation infrastructure investment is crucial to economic vitality and we need to fix the organizations that are responsible for making those investments.”

The boundaries of the MPO regions, which were established many years ago, have not changed in recent decades, while the Commonwealth has changed dramatically. The MetroWest/495 region now has the second largest payroll n the state, and almost 60% of the residents travel within the region to get to work. These changing demographics have led to an increased need for investment in transportation infrastructure, but the existing planning structures are not designed to make this region a priority.

Senator Spilka has advocated for MPO reform since last session, when she filed Senate Bill 1199, a proposal that would have changed MPO boundaries and created a new 495/MetroWest MPO. The bill she filed this session would allow municipalities, in conjunction with state officials, to designate a sub-region in an existing MPO, or collaboration between two or more MPOs to plan for transportation investments in the identified region.

Spilka argued that the time to initiate MPO reform is now.

“Last spring, when we transformed the structure of transportation agencies in Massachusetts through our transportation reform bill, we eliminated many of agencies and departments that are voting members of the MPOs,” stated Spilka. “We now need to examine how the MPOs should be organized and who should be members. The Boston MPO recertification will begin sometime this fall, making right now the right time to consider these questions of voting membership and effectiveness in achieving its mission.”

In addition, Senator Spilka testified in favor of An Act Assisting Towns to Create Quiet Zones for At-Grade Rail Crossings, which would create a grant program to assist towns in funding the upgrades necessary to the creation of “quiet zones” at rail crossings, where the use of train whistles is prohibited by federal law if public safety can be assured.

“The Worcester-Framingham-Boston rail line passes through a number of my communities,” stated Senator Spilka. “Train traffic on this line is likely to increase in the next few years, but each train running the rail line must blow its whistle several times for each street that it crosses. Unfortunately, the safety upgrades required for approval often cost far more than most municipalities can afford.”

Under Senator Spilka’s bill, towns could apply for a Quiet Zone Assistance Grant, which would cover up to 50% of the costs incurred by the towns in creating a Quiet Zone.

Both bills will need to receive a favorable report from the Joint Committee on Transportation to move to the Senate floor for debate.


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