By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- The Patrick administration won new funding streams for transportation this year, but with a transportation bond bill still wrapped up in committee, the state highway division has had to put construction projects on ice.
"We're currently in a position where the state budget authority for transportation is probably going to run out of money by the end of February without the passage of a bond bill," Highway Administrator Frank DePaola told the News Service.
DePaola said about three weeks ago the Massachusetts Department of Transportation stopped advertising bids for state and federally funded projects - though toll-funded projects and projects in the accelerated bridge program have a different funding scheme.
With Transportation Secretary Richard Davey on a trade mission to eastern Asia with Gov. Deval Patrick, DePaola is in charge of the department, and he alerted the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets to the situation Wednesday morning.
"We have stopped advertising state-funded contracts," DePaola told the committee.
Chairman Antonio Cabral said the committee could have an executive session, where votes may be taken, "possibly next week," and suggested inserting language into contracts that would make clear the funding is not yet available.
"We do that a lot over on this side: 'Subject to appropriation,' " Cabral said.
"I'm tempted to do it," DePaola told the News Service.
He said in addition to showing deference to a committee chairman, going out to bid with that type of qualifier would increase the demands from the construction industry for passage of the legislation (H 3763).
He said, "The lobby gets bigger."
The administration and the Legislature have clashed on a variety of transportation funding issues, with lawmakers chafing under Patrick's calls to show "courage" and pass a $1.9 billion tax proposal. When the Legislature apportioned off $300 million in funding for local roads, known as Chapter 90, from Patrick's bond bill, the governor signed it but only released $150 million. After the Legislature passed its own, smaller, tax package, Patrick bumped the Chapter 90 funding up to $200 million.
"To complete the story, we need the authorization now to issue bonds... I don't want to say they're half done, but they're half done," DePaola said.
Asked why the bond bill's passage has been delayed beyond when the administration hoped it would pass, DePaola said, "I'm not sure the communication was the best. We had a sense of urgency here. I'm not sure how that gets communicated to the Legislature."
The state has already advertised about $609 million worth of work, in the form of 102 contracts, and only has the financing lined up to pay for about half of it.
"Right now we're issuing delays to all the bid dates," said DePaola who hopes to have construction projects ready to go for the spring.
DePaola said he could advertise another 80 projects worth about $300 million between now and January, but the completion would be contingent on legislative action.
"If I did that, I'd be advertising contracts that I currently don't have the money to pay for," DePaola said. "So I would be doing that on speculation that a bond bill passes in the spring. If it doesn't I would have to cancel them all."
Undersecretary of Administration and Finance Scott Jordan confirmed to the News Service that the $12.1 billion bond bill redrafted by the Transportation Committee could be financed by the state, with the addition of new taxes passed over the summer. The 3-cent gas tax increase and linkage of the full gas tax to inflation would support $2.1 billion in borrowing at a higher credit rating of AAA than the state's usual debt rating.
Amid the rush to open up funding for projects in the pipeline, lawmakers quizzed administration officials on the contents of the bill.
The five-year bond bill includes $300 million, which MassDOT Chief Financial Officer Dana Levenson said would fund the purchase of land around South Station to enable an expansion, the construction of which could be financed through a real estate development deal or some other mechanism, he said.
In addition, the bond bill authorizes $2.2 billion for construction of the South Coast Rail to Fall River and New Bedford, a favorite of Cabral's, who inquired why the price has gone up from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion.
"Tell us why this is always a moving target," Cabral said, concerned the costs bolster the "naysayers."
MBTA Director of Energy and Environment Andrew Brennan said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' precondition that the commuter line run on electric, requiring the installation of catenary lines throughout the route, was responsible for the increase. The state-funded project will require an Army Corps U.S. Clean Water Act permit. Brennan also said the project is on track for service to begin in 2022.
A New Bedford Democrat, Cabral suggested the state could use a "design-build" method, where design and construction occur concurrently, with work beginning in the southern portion of the route to upgrade tracks for the commuter rail that are currently used by freight trains.
Cabral also inquired into what he said was a "real interesting number" of $429.7 million for what the bill terms "pedestrian, bicycle and multi-use pathways."
"Is Massachusetts going to be like Amsterdam now? It would be nice, actually," Cabral said.
Administration officials said they would have to get back to Cabral with an answer. An official told the News Service the language was added by the Transportation Committee and it's possible the multi-use pathways could refer to parkways or street projects that incorporate space for bicycles and cars.
Transportation officials are also determining whether to award a new commuter rail contract to the current provider, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, or Keolis Commuter Services.
DePaola said officials are meeting in closed-door executive sessions about the contract and said the Transportation Board could be able to vote on an award "possibly at the January meeting, in open session."