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MWDN: Senator Spilka Plans to Help Region Get Road Funds

September 12, 2009

September 12, 2009
By David Riley, The MetroWest Daily News

MetroWest may be an economic engine for the state, but the roads and bridges that help fuel it don’t always look the part.

Saying the region is too often shortchanged in funding for keeping up its transportation infrastructure, state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, aims to reform the way federal road investments are made in Massachusetts.

“We’re kind of on the back burner consistently,” she said yesterday.

Throughout the state, 13 regional groups called Metropolitan Planning Organizations play a major part in deciding where federal road funding goes.  Each group keeps a transportation improvement plan, or TIP, of road projects in its area.  Being on the list makes a project eligible for federal cash.

MetroWest falls near the boundaries of two or three different regions, said Spilka.  Many towns are part of the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, pitting their projects against those from the capital and other larger cities.

Two recent incidents shed some light on MetroWest’s position.  Last March, out of $150 million in shovel-ready state road and bridge projects expected to get federal stimulus money, none in this region were picked.

And this summer, the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization dropped a long-awaited plan to tackle traffic problems at a Framingham rail crossing from its project list.  Spilka successfully helped fight to reverse the decision.

“For an area of the state that’s the second largest economic engine of the state, we have needs that are not being met and it’s just not being fair,” Spilka said.

The senator has filed a bill that would let towns and cities in areas like MetroWest opt to create their own sub-region within an existing Metropolitan Planning Organization.  That designation would help target funding to the area, Spilka said.

Her bill would require sub-regions to receive a minimum share of highway funding, determined by the secretary of transportation. The bill also would allow two or more Metropolitan Planning Organizations to collaborate on transportation projects for a targeted area like MetroWest.

One example is the 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership’s work with the Boston and Central Massachusetts organizations to jointly fund a study on improving I-495 interchanges.  Spilka said her bill would foster this cooperation.

“It would help for us to do better planning in a more cohesive manner,” Spilka said.  “Right now, there is absolutely no structure in place to foster that.”

Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, said Spilka’s bill raises “innovative concepts.”

“I think her premise is certainly a good one in that there should be further collaboration between MPOs,” Matthews said.

The partnership hosted a meeting in June where Robert Lang, a Virginia Tech professor who is an expert on regional development, said creating subregions in some cases can help outlying areas get more attention, Matthews said.

Spilka testified on the bill this week in legislative hearings.  She said the timing is right – the makeup of the organizations is up in the air because they include representation from the state transit agencies that will no longer exist after they consolidate under a single agency later this fall.

Spilka also testified in favor of a bill to start a grant program for towns and cities that want to declare quiet zones at rail crossings, barring trains from blowing their whistles.

By federal law, towns have to make costly safety upgrades to rail crossings before they can qualify to be quiet zones.

In Ashland, Town Manager John Petrin said the Main Street rail crossing meets all the safety requirements, but another crossing on nearby Cherry Street would require nearly $1 million in upgrades.

“We’ve been pushing for something like this,” he said of the grant program.

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or driley@cnc.com)

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