Public higher ed facility needs comparable to MBTA

State House News Service
Published: 5/15/2017 10:27:44 PM

BOSTON — Citing fiscal constraints, the state’s education chief on Monday called for a “fix it first” approach to facilities at public colleges and universities and compared challenges facing the higher education system to those before the MBTA.

Education Secretary Jim Peyser told the House Bonding Committee that maintenance has been “uneven and episodic” throughout the past several decades at state campuses, where most construction dates back to the 1960s and 70s and many buildings are at the end of their useful life.

“As a result, our enormous deferred maintenance backlog problem is getting worse, not better,” Peyser said. “It is not much of a stretch to say the capital investment challenge facing higher education is similar to that of the MBTA. As a result, over the next several years we expect almost all of our capital allocation to be dedicated to renovation, repair and replacement of existing buildings.”

A recent outside analysis pegged the collective deferred maintenance backlog across Massachusetts public colleges and universities at $5.5 billion, not counting infrastructure and “ancillary facilities,” Peyser said.

At the T, which has a maintenance backlog of $7 billion, Gov. Charlie Baker has said he wants to focus on the core system and reliability improvements before tackling significant expansions. The administration has in recent months has advanced the Green Line Extension project and South Coast rail service.

In the race to attract students and faculty, Massachusetts higher education campuses, including the University of Massachusetts, have invested heavily in recent years in renovations and expansion projects.

The fiscal 2018 capital budget plan Gov. Charlie Baker released last week includes $36.5 million “for higher education campuses to meet critical repairs and deferred maintenance needs;” $29.3 million for renovations at a Springfield Technical Community College Building; $24 million for renovations at two Roxbury Community College buildings; and $6 million to address problems with an underground parking garage at UMass Boston, along with $24.2 million to continue construction on a new physical sciences building at UMass Amherst.

Peyser told the committee that the capital plan’s more than $190 million for higher education is roughly the same as this year’s investment and in line the the average for the last 10 years. He said more than 80 percent of the money will go toward reducing the maintenance and modernization backlog, representing a “significant increase” in the share devoted to that purpose.

Rep. Antonio Cabral, the committee’s chair, questioned how a focus on repairs would affect schools that need to expand, citing years of efforts by Bristol Community College in Fall River to develop a “full-blown campus” in his home city of New Bedford.

“We have a waitlist of almost 2,000 students, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight . . . ” Cabral said. “How do we balance that need versus ‘fix it first’?”

Peyser said investments that are priorities for particular campuses – like a community college expanding into an urban area to better serve students burdened by a commute – could be “offset” with square footage reductions elsewhere.

“Instead of repairing a building, for example, on a community college campus and creating a new campus or a new satellite facility downtown somewhere, you maybe really have to choose between one or the other, and that’s what we’re trying to deal with now,” Peyser said. “It’s not necessarily, as I said, just about renovation of existing places, existing buildings. It could be about replacing square footage with new construction or leases, and that could be because the building that we’ve got is not worth repairing or it could be because it’s in the wrong place, serving the wrong purpose.”

Peyser said pressures on the state’s operating budget – including MassHealth spending, pension costs and debt service – mean any additional capital spending and expansions of the state’s asset footprint need to be carefully considered.

He said the state will use a new process to evaluate capital projects and allocate funds, starting with the fiscal 2019 capital budget. Under the framework, campuses will respond to a request for proposals and their plans will be reviewed by a committee that will make recommendations to the governor, Peyser said.

Peyser said concepts approved through the new framework “will be green-lighted all the way through construction,” instead of the current incremental system.



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