Thursday, July 12, 2012
Senate eyes earmarked transportation bill

Boston — After needing months to agree on a $200 million bill to fund local road and bridge projects, the House and Senate have less than three weeks to find common ground on a much larger transportation bond bill that the House has pocked with scores of local project earmarks.

In interviews with the News Service, the chairmen of the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation emphasized the need to pass a bond bill likely worth more than $1 billion, saying it was important to advance statewide transportation projects and the jobs they will generate this year.
The one-year bill includes funds to continue projects authorized in a five-year 2008 bond bill.

The House bill includes borrowing authorization for $225 million for projects on the interstate federal highway system; $525 million for projects on the non-interstate federal highway system; $325 million for the design, construction and repair of non-federally aided road and bridge projects; $11 million for regional transit authorities operations and facilities; and $300 million for MassDOT rail improvements.

The House tacked on dozens of earmarks for funding of local projects, and the Senate is now considering following the same path, according to Sen. Brian Joyce, the chair of the Senate Bonding Committee reviewing the House bill.

Joyce told the News Service on Wednesday evening that the Senate Bonding Committee would likely advance the bill at the beginning of next week when it would be sent to Senate Ways and Means before coming to the floor for consideration late next week or the week after.

“The House was quite determined to express some of their priorities that they would like to see addressed by the administration in terms of transportation project funding, so my sense is the Senate would like to weigh in as well,” Joyce said.

Asked whether that meant the Senate would take its cue from the House and tack on scores of local funding earmarks, Joyce acknowledged that was a possibility.

“The Senate passed a bond bill that contained no earmarks. The House rejected that approach. The
House expressed a strong preference for allowing its members to promote their individual and collective priorities and there is an ongoing discussion now in the Senate as to whether we may do the same,” Joyce said.

Transportation Committee co-chair Sen. Thomas McGee said the larger borrowing initiative could also advance if the House agreed to a bill approved by the Senate and left in conference committee when lawmakers severed and advanced the local project funding.

McGee called the statewide projects at risk by the potential failure to pass a bill soon “equally important” compared to the local projects. “Those are projects that are impacting communities around the Commonwealth,” McGee said.

While McGee asserted that statewide projects “are going to be held up six to 12 months” because of the delay in advancing a bond bill, Rep. William Straus, his House counterpart, said he’s received no indication from Patrick administration transportation officials that any projects are being delayed while the bill is worked on.

Straus said early this week that it was his “understanding” that the Senate planned to take up the House-approved bond bill this week but a top aide to Senate President Therese Murray late Tuesday said that did not appear likely since the bill was still before the Senate Bonding Committee.

“This bill needs to be passed,” Straus said. “These are important projects.”

Because the bill authorizes borrowing, it requires a roll call to pass. Legislative rules require roll call votes during election years to occur by July 31, creating pressure for lawmakers to reach agreement soon if they plan to pass the bill this year.

Among the earmarks added by the House was $12 million for marina access improvements, seawall repair, and boardwalk development along the Merrimack River in Haverhill, $4.58 million for the Winthrop street corridor project, and $250,000 for the construction of a bridge spanning the Merrimack River in Tyngsboro.