If you live in or commute to Boston, chances are you’ve driven through the Storrow Tunnel, the east-bound section of Storrow Drive where the lanes run underneath the westbound lanes for a half mile stretch in the area between Back Bay’s Clarendon Street and the Hatch Shell. Nearly 60,000 drivers travel through it every day, with few likely being aware that it has earned the worst “bridge sufficiency rating” of all operating bridges in the United States according to Travel & Leisure magazine.
The “bridge sufficiency rating” is calculated using a formula defined by the Federal Highway Administration to serve as a prioritization tool to allocate federal funds, accounting for structural adequacy and safety, serviceability for modern use, and significance to the public. The federal government categorizes the road section as a bridge because the westbound lanes run directly above the eastbound ones, with the tunnel roof bearing the weight of the westbound overhead lanes. Thus, it is really a westbound bridge over an eastbound tunnel.
Despite its worst-in-the nation sufficiency rating, the bridge/tunnel section is safe for travel as determined by federal and state highway officials pursuant to annual inspections, reflecting the fact that MassDOT has made a series of costly interim repairs to keep it operational. The most recent one, made in 2012-13, brought total repair spending to $20 million over 12 years, much of which was taxpayer funded. Despite these expenditures, the bridge/tunnel still ranks at the very bottom nationally.
For those of you wondering why Massachusetts hasn’t just gone ahead and fixed America’s worst bridge once and for all instead of paying to patch it up over and over again, the explanation is not going to make you feel much better. Funding for a complete replacement of the Storrow Tunnel project has been backlogged for more than a decade in a tremendously long list of transportation state-of-good repair projects that add up to a whopping $32 billion. According to federal data, there were 588 structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts in 2006. During the Deval Patrick administration, and continuing into the Baker administration, some progress has been made to alleviate these deficiencies, but as of 2018 the Commonwealth still has 400 structurally deficient bridges. The cost to fix the remaining deficient bridges totals $14.4 billion.
And bridges aren’t Massachusetts’ only unfunded capital problem. The MBTA faces a state-of-good repair backlog of nearly $10 billion and state-owned roads have a backlog of nearly $8 billion. The state higher education system has $5.5 billion in unfunded deferred maintenance. In addition, Massachusetts faces an unfunded pension liability of $38.5 billion and an unfunded state retiree health care liability of $16.5 billion. The chart below lists these major obligations, which add up to $82.7 billion.
State Funding Issue
|MBTA state of good repair needs||$7.4 Billion|
|MBTA commuter rail state of good repair needs||$2.5 Billion|
|Deficient bridges||$14.4 Billion|
|Roads||$7.9 Billion over 10 years|
|Unfunded pension liability||$38.5 Billion|
|Unfunded state retiree other post-employment benefits (OPEB)||$16.5 Billion|
|State Higher Ed: Unfunded Deferred Maintenance||
As you can see, the Commonwealth’s laundry list of outstanding funding deficiencies is long and expensive; the total of $82.7 billion is roughly double the annual state budget, and equates to a whopping $12,375 for every Massachusetts resident.
When it comes to funding these projects, including the long-term fix for the Storrow Drive Tunnel, Massachusetts faces solvency issues. According to studies by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Massachusetts ranks 49th out of 50 states in cash solvency to cover its short-term bills, which include accounts payable, vouchers, warrants, and short-term debt. Additionally, the Mercatus study ranks Massachusetts 48th out of 50 in budget solvency, which measures whether a state can cover its fiscal year spending based on current revenues. Furthermore, Massachusetts ranks 48th out of 50 in long-run solvency which measures whether a state has a hedge against large long-term liabilities.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Bay State Business, Pioneer’s Research Director Greg Sullivan pointed out another obstacle to tackling the Storrow Drive Tunnel funding issue, which is that elected officials often put low-profile projects on the back burner in favor of higher-profile ones.
In response to widespread infrastructure deficiencies, including the large number of structurally deficient bridges, MassDOT has approved a 5-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) for FY2017-FY2021. In this plan, $2 billion is allocated to the state bridge program and $50 million for smaller, municipally owned bridges. Hopefully, the attention generated by Storrow Tunnel’s ignominious ranking as worst bridge in America means the fix will finally be funded.
Jay Anderson is a Northeastern University Co-Op at the Pioneer Institute; he is a Political Science major.