Western Mass. Turnpike tolls en route to return
PITTSFIELD -- A transportation budget compromise that would bring back tolls along the western stretch of the Turnpike appears headed for final action this week in the House and Senate.
Exits 1 through 6 on the turnpike, from the New York state border to Springfield, have been exempted from tolls since 1996 when they were eliminated by former Gov. William Weld.
State legislative leaders have released a compromise between House and Senate transportation bills, which would raise $500 million in taxes and other new revenues for transportation improvements.
The bill also would hike the state's gas tax by 3 cents to 26.5 cents per gallon, and increase the cigarette tax by $1 to $3.51 a pack.
The prospect of bringing back tolls to a part of the state that's long been without came with mixed reactions from some officials.
"I feel it was the right thing to do when they lifted those tolls because most of the [state transportation budget] money goes eastward," said Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi.
He said "Western Massachusetts continually subsidizes" major projects in the eastern part of the state, from which residents here do not directly benefit, and the toll reduction here was considered an effort to provide some balance.
However, Bianchi said he doubts reinstated tolls in the west would adversely affect tourism in the Berkshires.
"I don't think people would plan their vacations based on that," he said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he agrees with the rationale for the toll extension -- to raise more money for the state's pressing infrastructure needs.
"I don't have a problem with it," he said. "I see [the current policy] as a loss of revenue for the state, and we need that revenue."
In addition, he said, it is estimated that roughly 80 percent of the toll revenue would come from people living out of state. While estimates are that the amount of money raised would be approximately $15 million annually, Pignatelli said he believes the figure would be closer to $20 million to $25 million for transportation needs.
"I don't know about the [toll] structure, but I am sure it will be reasonable," he said.
Under the proposal approved in a House-Senate conference committee, the Department of Transportation would have 90 days to implement the fee structure and begin collecting tolls again at Exits 1 through 6.
This article will be updated in future editions of The Eagle.