Spring is pothole season in Amherst and judging by reports from town councilors, citizen complaints about the condition of the town’s roads have reached a fever pitch.
“It’s no secret I’m feeling that we have a serious problem on our hands with roads, and I think we need to think extremely creatively about how we can get ahead of this over the next five years,” declared Town Council President Lynn Griesemer at the May 16 Finance Committee meeting to review the Public Works budget.
“When councilors go on the campaign trail this fall this will probably be the number one item,” she predicted.
One reason for the bad roads is that Amherst invests a relatively small amount on highways compared to other Massachusetts communities, ranking sixth from the bottom in the percentage of the FY22 general fund spent on public works, as tracked by the Mass. Dept. of Revenue. Amherst maintains 106 miles of roads. With an estimated $40 million of road work needed, the Town is able to budget $2.2 million for highways in Fiscal Year 2024.
In his presentation to the Finance Committee, however, Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring made it clear that his department faces a variety of other challenges to completing road maintenance, as well.
Mooring reported that the Public Works Department is down six people, with two vacancies in the Highway section. He said that unattractive compensation and competition from other employers make finding and retaining trained staff difficult.
Town Manager Paul Bockelman pointed out that adding staff requires investing in health care and pension benefits. In addition, different work assignments must be found for the road crew in the winter months. For these reasons it is often more economical to hire contractors for road repair.
Limited Number of Local Contractors
Mooring explained that there are only three asphalt plants in the area, and Amherst must compete with other communities and the State Department of Transportation (MassDOT) for their services. Without guaranteed contracts, paving companies may be reluctant to add expensive staff and equipment.
The Town Maintains Some State Roads
Normally the MassDOT performs work on state highways, but Amherst has assumed responsibility for Rt. 116 between the Notch and Hadley, and Rt. 9 from South Pleasant Street to Belchertown. This arrangement, which adds to the burden on the Public Works Department, came about years ago, according to Mooring, because the Town did not like MassDOT road design requirements.
A Range of Public Works Responsibilities
Highways are but one of many important services handled by the Public Works Department. Snow and ice management, recycling and solid waste, water and sewer, street and traffic lights, stormwater, trees and grounds, engineering and cemeteries are all responsibilities that require Public Works funding and staffing.
Difficulty Getting Vehicles And Parts
Public Works owns 50-60 vehicles, such as excavators, backhoes, loaders, mowers and trucks. Since the pandemic, parts have been in short supply, and purchased vehicles can take 12-18 months to be delivered. Supply chain issues result in higher costs.
Salt May Be Damaging Roads
Mooring believes that an increase in the use of salt on roads may be contributing to their deterioration. Salt keeps ice from forming and the surface water seeps into cracks which freeze and cause the road “to pop.” He cites global warming as another contributor to the freeze-thaw cycle.
Town Councilor Cathy Schoen pointed out that the tax-exempt University of Massachusetts draws tens of thousands of cars and many delivery vans and large trucks to the town, causing wear and tear on the roads. This is seen as one of many state funding inequities. Town Manager Bockelman is working to document state aid reforms that he feels are warranted.
Disparate State Funding Sources
Mooring spoke of the inefficiency of small state programs that help fund roads such as Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School. Requesting grants from these programs requires technical expertise and staff time. He likened the process to “standing there at your competition like you’re in grade school saying please select my project.”
Mooring would rather see highway money funneled through the state’s Chapter 90 aid process which awards funding based on a community’s population, income level and number of road miles. This formula would be more beneficial to Amherst, he said.
If Town funds were unlimited, the amount of road resurfacing that could be done would still be limited by the length of the paving season, Mooring said. The largest annual budget allocation for highways that he could recall was $4 million. Paving work that year stretched past Thanksgiving when cold and snow threatened to cause interruptions.
Costs for equipment, materials, staff, and contractors have been steadily rising. Consequently the cost per mile for road resurfacing keeps going up. The Town Manager’s FY24 budget shows an 11% increase in personnel services for the Highway Department, compared to a 3% increase in the town budget across the board.
Among upcoming objectives listed in the budget document is to repave 2 miles of roads in FY24. 3.75 miles were reported to be repaved in FY22, and 1.38 miles in FY21.
The Public Works Department offers a service called AmherstConnect which allows residents to report non-emergency issues like potholes, streetlights out and sidewalk issues.