By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Having overridden Gov. Deval Patrick to establish a $500 million funding stream for transportation and other budget priorities, the Legislature will likely leave the decision-making on various capital projects up to the administration, according to the senator who oversees state bonding.
"The very hard reality is that our appetite for expansion and desire for expansion has to be tempered by the sober reality of available funds," said Sen. Brian Joyce, a Milton Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, "and so I expect the bonding committee will ultimately authorize, and the Legislature will ultimately authorize, the administration to move forward in a number of areas, but that it's going to be up to them to prioritize, given the limits to our borrowing capacity."
Patrick sought a total of $1.9 billion in new tax revenue for education and transportation, including a 10-year, $19 billion transportation bond bill, including authorizations to spend $497 million on a train from New York City to Pittsfield; $1.8 billion for construction of the South Coast Rail to Fall River and New Bedford; $850 million for the expansion of South Station; and $1.3 billion for the Green Line Extension, bringing the trolley from East Cambridge out to Medford.
The Legislature extracted the state funding for local roads from the overall bond bill, and limited the so-called Chapter 90 funding municipalities use for streets and sidewalks to one year at $300 million. Patrick signed the bill, which provided a $100 million increase over last year's Chapter 90 funding, and has only released $200 million of the local road funds, despite insistence from local officials that the state release the full amount authorized by law.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the transportation bond bill remains in the Transportation Committee, and a committee aide said it could move as early as September.
Joyce said the Green Line Extension makes economic sense, and that he has heard repeated arguments from South Coast lawmakers in favor of the commuter-rail extension. He also said there are "public-private partnership and redevelopment opportunities" associated with the South Station expansion.
"It's difficult for me to see the numbers add up to have three significant transportation expansions in the short term while addressing the almost overwhelming immediate needs to repair and improve existing transportation infrastructure," Joyce said.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is advancing the three rail projects as well as a highway interchange at the junction of interstates 93 and 95 in Canton.
"The Administration is currently in the process of identifying and prioritizing projects which will move forward with new and existing funds this fall," Administration and Finance spokeswoman Alex Zaroulis said in an email.
The Legislature created the Debt Affordability Commission last year, and Joyce said the commission is assembled and should issue a report in November, which will "help inform all of our decisions."
Massachusetts has one of the highest per-capita debt burdens in the nation, while also maintaining AA+ bond ratings.
Joyce said he has concerns over "extraordinary provisions" contained in the governor's bond bill that would enable the administration to commit the state to payments stretching out to 2053 and a funding mechanism known as grant anticipation notes.
Joyce said that financing method is "the sort of fuzzy math that was used in the Big Dig era, spending money that we anticipate getting in the future."
Speaking to the News Service after a bonding committee meeting, where Joyce was the only member present and where there was no testimony on any of the local bills for property transfers, he extolled the benefits of extending the Green Line through Somerville and into Medford.
"There are some significant projects and ambitious transportation projects on the governor's agenda, and there's great interest in the Green Line Extension, which seems to make great economic sense in that it would help generate increased economic activity in an already hot area for bio-tech and life-science and technology companies," Joyce said.