LEE -- Frequent Massachusetts Turnpike users should receive toll discounts once the state follows through on its plans to reimpose charges on motorists traveling between interchanges 1 and 6 on Oct.15.
That was the message spoken clearly by residents and local officials who turned out for a public hearing at Lee Middle and High School hosted by the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) on Tuesday. Roughly 40 people attended.
Frank Depaola, MassDOT highway administrator, told them the state expects to raise an extra $12 million a year by restoring the tolls Gov. William Weld lifted in 1996. The money, he said, is for road, bridge and other highway infrastructure repairs.
The 123-mile stretch from Exit 1 in West Stockbridge to Exit 14 in Weston requires roughly $175 million in repairs, according to Depaola.
Needed fixes comprise $123 million in bridge repairs, $30 million in drainage and culvert repairs, $11 million in repaving, $9 million in guard rail replacement and $2.5 million to erect fences and bolster retaining walls. Depaola said MassDOT plans to spend $30 million annually on these repairs.
Officials at the hearing agreed on the necessity of the tolls, and said they hoped frequent users would receive discounts. Frequent users made sure Depaola knew they had the same thing on their minds.
Pittsfield resident Terry Kinnas requested an economic impact report but was told none existed. The Berkshires, Kinnas said, rank among the most economically depressed areas in the state. He said it is unfair to ask county residents to pay more when comparable levies for Exit 17 users aren't planned until 2016.
"They're not getting increased tolls like we are out here in Western Massachusetts," Kinnas said. "It's going to be free until 2016 in one of the highest-income communities, Newton. Over the year, you're adding $500, $600, $850," he added.
Depaola assured Kinnas the state was mandated to use all these funds on repairs to the western section of the Pike.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli called this "very, very important" -- and without precedent.
"Most times it's gone back into the general fund and then it's a dog fight within the Legislature and between legislators where that money ends up being spent," Pignatelli said. "If the money stays in Western Massachusetts, I'm all for it."
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Nathanial Karns agreed on the necessity of funding the repairs.
"Take a look at the conditions of those bridges [along the western section of the Pike]," he said. "All you have to do is look at the amount of rust and realize we've got issues."
Numerous people who travel every day on the Mass Pike to get to work also spoke, requesting discounted passage.
A second public hearing on the toll increase is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield.
To reach Phil Demers:
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