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Senate approves $10.4B infrastructure plan | Boston

BOSTON — The state Senate on Thursday approved a more than $10.4 billion bond bill that calls for leveraging federal pandemic aid and record surplus revenue to fund infrastructure upgrades. 

The proposal, which passed on a 39-0 vote with bipartisan support, calls for making major investments to upgrade the public transit system, fix aging water and sewer systems, repair roads and bridges, spruce up downtowns, build more affordable housing and jumpstart clean energy projects.

A key provision of the bill includes $400 million for the MBTA to fix major safety problems identified in an ongoing federal investigation.

“The safety record on the MBTA is simply unacceptable,” Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, said in remarks ahead of the bill’s passage. “Accidents and derailments have led to the tragic loss of life, serious injury and a complete lack of confidence among riders.”

The plan also calls for diverting $250 million to help pay for a western Massachusetts rail extension, if that project eventually moves ahead.

Other funding would be devoted to fixing combined sewer outfalls and culverts, modernize airports, and create incentives to switch to electric vehicles.

Senators slogged through more than 200 proposed amendments to the bill, most of them earmarks requesting funding for local projects and initiatives. Many were rejected or withdrawn, but others were bundled into consolidated amendments approved or rejected by voice votes.

A bipartisan group of senators also added a provision to the bill calling for spending $28 million on a pilot program to offer new ferry service between ports in Gloucester, Salem, Lynn and other coastal communities to Boston’s waterfront docks.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said the plan would open up a new water corridor connecting the coastal cities, which would also help ease traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions by getting more vehicles off the state’s roadways. 

“This is an attempt to utilize the resources of these ports … and to be able to accommodate not only passengers, but also tourists,” Tarr said. 

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, will divert $6 million to several North Shore communities including money for a pilot program to connect downtown Peabody with the Salem commuter rail station, make roadway upgrades in Beverly and expand the Danvers’ rail trail.

Another amendment, co-sponsored by Crighton, directs the MBTA to create a low-income fare program providing “free or discounted transit fares to qualifying riders on all modes of transportation operated or overseen by the authority.”

The infrastructure plan would be funded by leveraging state surplus and federal pandemic relief money to go after discretionary federal funds that will be made available through President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure law through grants.

Massachusetts stands to receive more than $9.5 billion from the spending bill over the next five years, including at least $4.2 billion for roadway upgrades and $1.1 billion for bridge repairs, according to the Biden administration.

But the new federal law also allows Massachusetts to apply for about $2.5 billion in competitive grants for local governments to fix potholes and crumbling bridges, upgrade water and sewer systems and handle other infrastructure needs.

Lawmakers say they want to divert the “once in a generation” tranche of federal funding into upgrading the state’s aging infrastructure.

“More than $9 billion will be flowing to Massachusetts as a result of this legislation,” Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said in remarks. “We need to make sure that money goes to transformational investments that change the trajectory we’re on as a state, rather than reinforcing it.” 

House lawmakers approved a $10.4 billion infrastructure bill last month after tacking on $560 million in new spending, much of it local earmarks.

Gov. Charlie Baker is also chasing after the federal infrastructure funding offered under the new law. He filed a $9.7 billion infrastructure bond bill in March that called for leveraging state borrowing to go after billions of dollars in competitive federal grants.

The state is also diverting money from a $4 billion plan to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds and surplus revenue on water, sewer and other environmental infrastructure.

Data provided by the Biden administration shows only about 25% of Massachusetts’ 5,229 bridges are in good condition. About 9% are considered structurally deficient.

Besides structurally deficient bridges, many of the state’s roadways are in major disrepair, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

The Biden administration’s Infrastructure Report Card gave the state a grade of C-, saying there are at least 1,194 miles of highway in poor condition.

Differences between the House and Senate infrastructure bills must now be reconciled before a final version lands on Baker’s desk for review. 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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