Local highway department heads, state officials call for $270 million more in CHIPS funding for 2024

Mar. 8—ALBANY — More than 100 town, village and county highway superintendents, state leaders and advocates rallied in the state Capitol Wednesday to call for more state support for local highway repairs.

Calling for at least $270 million in extra funding, officials said there have been steep increases in costs for highway work. Upstate communities rely on state aid to help support highway maintenance in their communities.

"I'll remind you, 87% of the roads in New York state, and 52% of the 18,000 bridges in New York state are owned and maintained by our local municipalities, and 40% of the miles driven are driven on our local roads" said Assemblyman Philip A. Palmesano, who represents the western Southern Tier.

The highway superintendents and state officials are supporting a plan that would give the state's Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, also called CHIPS, $200 million more this year for standard funding requests, and another $70 million for extreme winter recovery. All together, this would boost CHIPS funding for the 2024 fiscal year from $638 million to $908 million.

"This investment is warranted and justified, because we have billions of dollars in unmet local needs, coupled with the unprecedented decay in our local hiring systems," Palmesano, R-Hornell, said.

Alongside the historic lack of investment, local officials are concerned that construction prices have increased significantly in recent months, and are up 22% by some calculations over their levels one year ago. Kevin P. Rooney, president of the County Highway Superintendents Association and highway superintendent for Wayne County, said those higher costs will lead to less highway work this year.

"Construction inflation is a big problem, it basically if we're going to do the same dollar amount of work, we're going to do less overall maintenance," he said. "And every one of us has a program that we need to keep up."

Lewis County Highway Superintendent Timothy Hunt said delayed highway maintenance now can lead to massively higher costs for rebuilding programs down the line.

"One dollar deferred today can be seven dollars tomorrow," he said. "Maintenance has to get done, or you wind up rebuilding the entire highway."

Many highway departments statewide have budgeted for more construction and maintenance in 2024 already, as the federal government provided a boost of millions to county and local governments with the American Rescue Plan Act. Jefferson County has planned to fast track its own five-year maintenance program with money from ARPA, and officials said seeing no boost to the CHIPS program this year could throw a wrench into local budgets.

The $270 million boost, which officials stressed is lower than the need for new highway spending but agreed is a "reasonable" amount for a one-year increase, is meant to keep pace with inflationary increases.

Assemblyman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, said he believes that highway maintenance costs are best borne by the state government, which has a wider tax base to pull funding from compared to smaller upstate towns, villages and counties.

"It's spread out over the state tax base, where at the local level you'd end up seeing an increase in your property tax rates," he said.

He said another issue, which did not get much attention during Wednesday's press conference, is highway shoulder maintenance.

"Those are critical to safety, whether we're talking about tractors, bikes, horses and buggies, shoulders are extremely important," he said. "We need funding to maintain those."

Gray criticized part of the Complete Streets Act, passed by the state legislature in 2011, which calls in part for municipalities to consider adding sidewalks to rural roads and highways for pedestrians.

"We should be worried about shoulders, not necessarily sidewalks," he said. "Municipalities should worry about sidewalks, rural roads should be worried about shoulders."

As for increasing CHIPS funding into 2024, Gray said he expects there will be bipartisan support for increasing the allocation in the legislature's final drafts of next year's state budget.

"In upstate, everyone has rural roads in their district," he said. "Last year, we saw a huge emphasis on funding the (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), and all we're asking for is equal recognition for our own transportation upstate."