State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, recently held a Town Hall meeting in Lenox.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, recently held a Town Hall meeting in Lenox. (Clarence Fanto/Special to the Berkshire Eagle)

LENOX -- Frequent drivers who use the MassPike to get to work or college in Springfield, Westfield and other Pioneer Valley destinations could get a break from the tolls restored last October between exits 1 and 6.

During an informal "Coffee and Conversation" event held by state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, at Town Hall on Monday afternoon, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, described his proposal to create a discounted annual toll pass for motorists using short stretches of the turnpike.

After 17 years of toll-free driving on the western end of the highway, drivers entering at Exit 1 in West Stockbridge or Exit 2 in Lee pay up to $1.75 for a one-way ride to the Springfield area interchanges, and vice-versa.

At the wide-ranging, nearly two-hour discussion attended by about 30 constituents of Downing's sprawling Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden County district, Michelle Loubert of Great Barrington, a commuter to Westfield State University whose husband, Bruce, also drives to work at a nonprofit in that city, voiced support for the potential discount program.

"I lost my job a couple of years ago but I've gone back to school at Westfield," she said. "The tolls that we're paying now are really impacting our budget. ... When we're going back and forth on the Pike with our E-ZPass, it doesn't seem like a lot until it hits our bank account. We're really feeling it. I think this is a great compromise for the ‘frequent flyers.' "

Downing explained that the proposed toll discount for Western Massachusetts drivers is the same break given to Boston vicinity commuters who use tunnels and bridges to reach the city.

He said the state Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee is open to the Pignatelli proposal, even though the Patrick administration has been hesitant to embrace it.

State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has said he does not support a discounted toll plan.

"I think we've got a strong case to make and hopefully we'll get it out of the committee and get it going from there," said Downing.

Pignatelli said he hopes that committee leaders release his bill for a vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

"We're not asking anything more than people in Boston are getting currently," he declared. Charlestown and Chelsea drivers are eligible for 90 percent discounts to cross the Tobin Bridge to the city, while East Boston residents get a similar break on tolls for airport tunnels.

During the recent Joint Committee on Transportation hearing, Pignatelli urged lawmakers to "give other people in the state the same opportunity whose only mode of transportation to get to and from work is the Mass Turnpike. It's fair and consistent."

Under his proposal, non-commercial drivers would be eligible for a discounted annual pass that would set up zones along the Pike, similar to pricing for trains and buses.

A pass valid between exits 1 and 8 costing $50 a year and would allow unlimited use of the turnpike -- an obvious benefit for frequent drivers.

"It's not just a Berkshire County bill," Pignatelli observed, citing a South Hadley resident who commutes to work in Great Barrington. "It's an east-west connection," he said, "and we even have people from Cape Cod who have supported this bill."

He compared his proposal to the existing commuter discount program offered by the state to drivers who carpool with two or more people. "We just got rid of the passenger requirement," he said.

The zoned discount plan has won bipartisan support from 21 lawmakers co-sponsoring Pignatelli's bill.

The western Pike tolls were reinstated by the Legislature last year as part of a plan to fund transportation improvement projects, including upgrades to the turnpike.

Pignatelli urged residents supporting the bill to contact Joint Transportation Committee leaders -- "the timing is right now," he said.

To contact Clarence Fanto:

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