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$2b in aid for Mass. transit projects

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 7, 2012
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The approximately $2 billion for Massachusetts in the transportation package signed by President Obama Friday will pay for highway and transit projects from the Berkshires to Cape Cod and make Massachusetts one of just a few states to receive even a slight increase in federal aid.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray traveled to the White House for the signing, and state officials applauded Congress for reaching a deal, hailing the estimated 11,000 Massachusetts construction jobs that will be created or preserved through an array of federally supported public works projects.

Those projects include replace­ment of elevated portions of Route 128 in Needham and Wellesley, resurfacing of Route 6 in Sandwich and Bourne, and reconstruction of Government Center Station, a dated but vital MBTA stop largely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

But advocates of a robust program to address the nation’s decaying highways and bridges, the need to invest more in public transit and enhance intercity rail, and encourage walking and biking as well as driving ­lamented the result reached by congressional negotiators.

“[This] is not the greatest one we’ve ever passed by far, but it does solve a political problem in Washington, namely, people really don’t want to address our transportation problem,” said US Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat and member of the House Transportation Committee. “It effectively kicks the ball down the road for two more years, and obviously there are many of us who wanted to do more than that.”

Previous programs established federal highway and transit spending for five or six years at a time, with the last ­expiring in 2009. Congress and the White House were forced to approve about 10 short-term extensions of that program while locking horns over a new bill.

The resulting compromise sets spending for the next 27 months, at a total of $120 billion, generating sighs of relief among state officials who can advance planned projects and put contracts out to bid with certainty about the level of federal reimbursement.

But it scaled back a bipartisan Senate package supported by Massachusetts lawmakers, as a concession to House ­Republicans who wanted to cut funding, particularly for transit.

“We’ve been hampered the last couple of years because Congress has only done very short extensions,” Richard A. Davey, the state’s secretary of transportation, said in an interview Friday. “The good news is, this gives us some stability.”

The legislation removes fear of a shutdown or cut in federal aid, allowing Massachusetts to proceed with highway projects already programmed by metropolitan planning organizations — regional groups of state and local planners and officials — and with transit repairs or enhance­ments identified by the T and regional bus agencies.

In Greater Boston, that ­includes reconstruction and widening of Route 18 in Abington and Weymouth, reconstruction of Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, and maintenance work on swaths of Interstates 95, 93, and 495, important if not glamorous projects that “put people to work and ­improve our highway, road, rail, and bridge infrastructure,” Murray said in a statement.

The national package represents a slight uptick overall, while highway aid to Massachusetts holds steady at $588 million annually in fiscal 2012 and 2013, increasing to $593 million for fiscal 2014, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The state’s transit aid, to be shared by the T and 15 smaller bus agencies, will rise to $345 million for fiscal 2013 and 2014, up from $300 million, the Transportation Department said. That makes the state one of just three, plus the District of Columbia, to see an increase based on federal formulas, Capuano said.

The plan is financed largely by an 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax last increased in 1993, meaning it has lost buying power because of inflation and more fuel-efficient cars. A bipartisan deficit reduction commission created by the president in 2010 recommended raising the tax to bolster the transportation system, but ­Congress had no appetite for it in an election year.

“We have a fair number of people in Congress right now who think that all government spending is inherently evil,” Capuano said, calling it an unfortunate historical departure. “What kind of country would we have if Republicans — Ike Eisenhower — hadn’t built the interstate system with taxpayer dollars?”

The transportation bill ­includes creation of a federal program to standardize tunnel inspection, similar to bridge inspection requirements, that Capuano had sought since the fatal ceiling tile collapse in a Big Dig tunnel in 2006 revealed the haphazard nature of state-by-state inspection programs.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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