Berkshire planners wary of proposal that could bypass local input on road projects
PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire County planners want officials in Western Massachusetts to have more say in the selection and review of state Department of Transportation projects -- a point they intend to make known in two forthcoming letters to department officials.
At a recent meeting, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission members expressed fears that a newly created state body will bypass local input when choosing projects to fund under the Transportation Improvement Program.
The state's 13 Metropolitan Planning Organizations -- Berkshire County has one comprised of various local representatives from cities and towns -- prioritize transportation projects and allot these funds. But under the authority of the transportation finance bill passed in July, a Project Selection Advisory Council soon is expected to take over some of these responsibilities.
"I became concerned when we were told the MPOs will have no role in how that money gets spent," said Nathanial Karns, executive director of the commission.
Karns learned of the change during a meeting of various regional planners and members of MPOs attended by MassDOT Highway Administrator Frank DePaola. The first letter, still in draft form, calls for a "regionally equitable" and "transparent" selection process "based on demonstrated need through a well-developed project evaluation process."
The new council's role remains fuzzy, Karns said in an interview, but BRPC and other regional planning bodies seek clarity on the issue.
"Who's going to be making the decisions? Is there any regional balance? What is the process?" were among questions Karns raised.
Some BRPC members referenced the Big Dig -- the massive highway project in Boston whose costs ballooned to more than $24 billion -- and said they feared the new organization would allow eastern domination of funds intended for statewide use.
Rene Wood, a member representing Sheffield, successfully pushed for the letter's language to be strengthened.
"We are losing our ability to have input into traditionally how the transportation money has been spent and that's a huge take," Wood said. "We just got screwed."
Wood asked Karns how many MPO members would be part of the new council. Karns' answer: one.
"I have a feeling they're not going to be selected from the Berkshires," Wood said.
The second letter, penned by member Roger Bolton, who represents Williamstown, will address what members say is MassDOT's habit of keeping environmental reviewers out of the loop on highway construction projects until late in the planning -- at the 100 percent design stage.
"Determining the broad environmental impacts of a project at this late stage very drastically reduces the ability of [project reviewers] to help avoid, minimize or mitigate the environmental impacts of projects," Bolton's draft letter states.
"BRPC has complained to the state many times about this in the past to no avail," Bolton said.
Environmental assessments should be done closer to mid-design, the letter states.
Each of the drafted letters were deemed "time sensitive" and commission Chair Sheila Irvin said they'd be in the mail soon.
In other business at Thursday's meeting, BRPC Transportation Program Manager Clete Kus said the commission supports the reinstatement of tolls, which were lifted in 1996, for motorists traveling between interchanges 1 and 6 on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Set to return Oct. 15, the tolls will cost passenger cars $1.75 to travel between the New York state line and Chicopee. The cost will be $1.30 from Exit 2 in Lee, where many Berkshire commuters enter the Pike.
Karns said if one looks at the figures by volume, western commuters -- even with the reinstatement of these tolls -- will pay relatively little for the upkeep of their portion of the turnpike.
"We get a bigger subsidy from those 160,000 vehicles a day that go through Framingham and Natick than we're giving them," he said. "I'm not talking about the overall financial scheme for transportation and how much we subsidize the [Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority] and the metropolitan highway system. That's a whole separate argument and I'll agree with anyone who says we've been robbed and butchered on that. But on the western Massachusetts Turnpike, we're being subsidized."
Karns said the western interchanges see traffic of 16,000 vehicles per day. Reinstatement of the tolls is expected to raise $12 million annually, funds MassDOT is legally obligated reinvest into maintaining the portion of the turnpike spanning from the New York border to Route 128.
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