New England News
12:33 pm
Wed September 11, 2013

Western Mass. Residents Push for Commuter Discount for Proposed Tolls

Western Massachusetts residents gathered at Lee High School to weigh in on the proposed reinstatement of tolls from Exit 1 to Exit 6 on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The tolls would be set at the same rates as in 1996, when they were eliminated.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

Western Massachusetts residents had a chance to weigh in on the proposed reinstatement of tolls on the westernmost portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

About a dozen Berkshire residents attended a public hearing at Lee High School Tuesday night to comment on the proposed reinstatement of tolls for passenger cars from Exits 1 to 6. The Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation estimates the tolls will raise $12 million in additional revenue each year, as part of the state’s $500 million transportation finance package.

“The rates that we’re proposing are the exact same rates that were in existence when the tolls came down in 1996,” DOT Highway Administrator DePaola said. “We think it’s a fair and reasonable starting point to start with what the tolls were. There hasn’t been a toll increase on the Turnpike since 1990.”

Legislatively, the Western Mass Turnpike is defined as the 127 miles from Exit 1 in West Stockbridge to Exit 14 in Weston. Within the state’s finance package, money collected from the new tolls would be required to be used on improvements to this section of the highway only. Democratic State Representatives Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Smitty Pignatelli of the Fourth Berkshire District also attended the hearing.

“Most times it’s gone back into the general fund and then it’s a dogfight within the Legislature and from Legislators on where that money’s being spent,” Pignatelli said. “The fact that it’s going to go right back into transportation is very important.”

Currently the state DOT has $18 million available each year for improvements on the western pike, and the additional $12 million would raise that annual amount to $30 million. DePaola says the state has a backlog of capital improvements projects to bridges, guardrails, and drainage culverts that total $160 million. He says an independent engineer suggested the DOT act on a five-year plan investing $45 million annually to address those needs. DePaola says the DOT will work with the legislature to fill that $15 million gap to follow the recommendation. But for now, Pignatelli says the main concern is the cost to Berkshire residents.

“When I was a kid growing up here in the Berkshires, General Electric had 14,000 people working in Pittsfield,” Pignatelli said. “In the town of Lee there were multiple paper mills that employed almost 3,000 people. The last remaining mill is employing less than 150 people, General Electric is no longer in Pittsfield, so we’ve become a very mobile society.”

Local residents, like Jennifer Thompson, who works in the operating room at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, echoed the concerns, saying taking alternative routes to avoid the tolls isn't feasible.

“I need to be there and I need to do my job,” Thompson said. “Taking that 25 minutes to go that way just isn’t feasible for me so therefore using the Turnpike is the best way to go for me. So having the discount would be appreciated.”

Pignatelli and DePaola say they will work together to develop legislation that would establish a commuter discount for local residents. Others questioned how reinstating the tolls after a 17-year hiatus is the best option.

“There’s a lot of things that can be cut and save $12 million without doing this,” said Patrick Fennell of Great Barrington.

William Navin of Lee says the proposed tolls combined with a three-cent hike in the state’s gas tax that took effect in July will add up.

“A lot of people aren’t happy,” Navin said. “Myself, I’m on level income. I don’t go to Springfield that often, it wouldn’t be a hardship for me. The gas tax and the tolls are eventually going to be a hardship.”

DePaola says the proposed rates are not set in stone.

“There’s always a possibility that if there was overwhelming rejection by the populace that we might consider a lower rate, but at this point we’re proposing putting it back the way it was,” said DePaola.

In a separate plan, the DOT is aiming to install automated toll collectors above the turnpike. High speed cameras and scanning equipment will be placed on structures similar to overhead road signs that will read EZ-Pass transponders, charging the driver immediately or taking a picture of the license plate to bill the driver later. The change is expected for July 2016. DePaola says under this plan, a flat rate will charged at different toll locations one near Exit 1, another near Blandford, and one between Exits 4 and 5.

“The tolls will be measured on the straight segments of the turnpike between the exits,” DePaola said. “That way it will allow for free flow of traffic and we won’t have the congestion at the exits or entering ramps.”

The tolls are scheduled to be reinstated on October 15. DePaola says under the proposed plan, it would cost $5.85 to travel the entire Mass Turnpike, as the reestablished rates would charge $1.75 for cars getting on at Exit 6 and getting off at Exit 1. Another public hearing for the proposed reinstatement of tolls from Exits 1 and 6 is scheduled for 6 o’clock Thursday at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield.