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MA Energy And Environmental Affairs Secretary Tours Pittsfield Project

Two people examine a stream from the top of a paved outcropping in the woods
Josh Landes
Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides examines the Churchill Street culvert with Pittsfield Commissioner of Public Services David Turocy.

A member of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s cabinet visited Pittsfield Friday to examine an infrastructure project the state is funding.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides joined city officials in the woods of Western Pittsfield to look at the Churchill Street Brook culvert, one of two city waterway structures to receive a state grant of over $814,000. The other is the West Street Culvert. Theoharides explained that the funding is a part of a state program.

“The Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program was begun in 2017," said the secretary. "It was a $500,000 capital grant program at that point. Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito have increased it over the last three years to a $12 million program now.”

Describing the need as “significant,” Theoharides says over 70% of Massachusetts cities and towns have signed up for the MVP program.

“What it helps communities do is take a really grassroots approach to planning for climate change, bringing all of their town departments together, bringing stakeholders from the community together, and the state provides funding to have technical services and facilitators there," she told WAMC. "Once that plan is done, we have action grants so that top priorities identified from the town or city can be actually put into action and implemented.”

In this case, Pittsfield is using that money to replace aging infrastructure like the Churchill Street Brook culvert, which feeds into Lake Onota – one of the city’s major bodies of water.

“It’s falling apart. Right now we have a stone structure on the west side and a pipe structure on the east side, and it’s just not sustaining the water flow through it," said City engineer Ricardo Morales. “We’re replacing what’s here right now and installing a box culvert, a box structure.”

“Well, the first part of the corrective nature of this culvert will be that it will be larger, wider, and taller to accommodate the flows through it, but it will also accommodate wildlife passage through it – small critters, turtles and such," said James McGrath, Pittsfield’s Park, Open Space and Natural Resource Program Manager. The redesigned culvert will make it easier for those critters to move safely across the roadway, as well as reducing the amount of detritus from the road that makes it into waterways.

“We had to host public meetings, community meetings thorough Pittsfield to have the community help inform us of what some of the things they were seeing were problematic – was it flooding, is it extreme heat issues – and these are all those types of climate change related issues that the city of Pittsfield is needing to focus on over the coming years," said McGrath. "These are very real issues that are in front of us. So, in Pittsfield, particularly, it’s flooding – issues with water and how we address water coming off the high elevation areas, so this project here is a perfect example of how we’re trying to address flooding in our community.”

Theoharides says that the Resilient MA legislation filed by the Baker administration earlier this summer is intended to address the overwhelming needs the MVP program has brought to light in the long term.

“So the governor’s proposal would create a trust fund that is estimated to result in about a billion dollars a year, specifically for investments in critical resilient infrastructure in communities, such as culverts, such as dams, such as making sure that critical facilities have back up power during emergency situations,” she said.

The trust fund would be raised from an increase to the state’s real estate transfer fee, paid by the seller at the point of sale.

“Just to give you a sense, it’s about a $900 increase on the sale of a $400,000 house,” said Theoharides.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer was on hand for the culvert tour.

“This is the sort of project that we would not be able to do with simple municipal resources, so having the state be our partner in all of this is really remarkable,” said the mayor.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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