By Seth Daniel
When Congressman Michael Capuano was working on a reauthorization of the Federal Transportation funding mechanism – the first such reauthorization in 10 years – he had the whole state of Massachusetts in mind, but certainly one area was a top priority – Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue.
Capuano – who was the only New England member of the House on the bill’s Conference Committee – helped to pass the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST) last week, a measure signed into law last weekend by President Barack Obama. The measure calls for $305 billion in funding for highways, transit, Amtrak and intercity passenger rail across the country, and more than $5 billion of that is coming to Massachusetts over the next five years.
Capuano said that will be an increase of nearly 10 percent, or $447 million over current levels.
He also noted this was a rare glimpse at how the U.S. Congress can work together to get something done.
“It’s the first long-term reauthorization in about 10 years and it’s not fantastic or what I would want in terms of funding sources, but it’s pretty good,” he said. “It’s not great, but pretty good. It’s a lot of money and a lot of jobs. Every union member is happy and every contractor is happy. It really is a clear bi-partisan agreement. You will not find anyone totally happy, but a lot are satisfied, which is the way democratic way I suppose. I’m not getting used to it. It’s the exception and not the rule these days.”
Capuano said the bill ensures that federal money is there for those who are in the planning process for transportation projects – specifically about $600 million annually over the next five years.
“It allows any city and town to have the confidence there will be federal money on hand for them to do the projects and infrastructure work they are planning,” he said. “They can have confidence that money will be there for them when they are ready, which was not the case just last week.”
The money doesn’t go towards any specific projects, he said, noting that there were no earmarks in the bill – but simply money allocated to the state transportation agencies. It will be up to cities and towns to begin planning and requesting those federal dollars.
That shifted the conversation to a situation that is near and dear to Capuano – that being the reorganization of traffic in Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue. One positive about the timing of the bill, he said, is that those who are just now beginning the teeth-gnashing work of delving into Sullivan Square can be assured that federal money is in the pot.
“Sullivan Square is in a planning effort, but it didn’t have a federal funding guarantee,” he said. “Everyone could agree on a plan for Sullivan Square immediately and say, ‘Let’s do it this way,’ but there were no federal monies there until this bill. The federal money is there now.”
Long an opponent of the surface option for Sullivan Square, Capuano said he hopes the federal dollars will move decision makers to the table for a real solution that is regional and workable.
“The problem is Sullivan Square and the roadway are all owned by the City of Boston,” he said. “The City of Boston has to come to the table. Clearly, my preference is to keep Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square as a part of the regional transportation system and I hope the Commonwealth drives that train and the City of Boston works cooperatively. I think they don’t want a bottleneck there. They couldn’t create a bottleneck there unless the Commonwealth allowed it…There are still lots of problems with Sullivan Square and the Commonwealth has to begin to solve them. Let’s break ground on this casino and get together on a regional effort with Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and Everett and start to figure out what we all want there.”
He added that many are still pointing to the surface option, and the fact that the casino and other developments nearby have foiled the City’s plan to return Sullivan Square to the neighborhood. He said he doubts there ever was a great deal of support for that plan, and especially now.
“Some people support it and it was always a very divisive issue in Charlestown,” he said. “It was a 50-50 proposition and never really was the City’s final plan. If it were allowed, it would push traffic on to residential streets of Charlestown. Instead of Rutherford Avenue, you would have them on Main Street. You are still going to have people going through Charlestown.”
The bill also includes several provisions under the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, on which Rep. Capuano serves as ranking member. Some $10.2 billion is authorized for passenger rail, including $8 billion for Amtrak.
“It’s a constant struggle to authorize Amtrak funding on time so I am pleased it is included in this larger transportation measure, which will help ensure Amtrak gets needed attention,” said Capuano.