LENOX — If, and it's a big if, a new Massachusetts Turnpike interchange is built in the 30-mile no-exit stretch between Lee and Westfield, it won't be in a Berkshire County hilltown.
That was the loud and clear outcome of a state Department of Transportation public meeting at its district headquarters in Lenox on Wednesday.
Any potential interchange could be located in one of two Blandford locations — MassDOT's maintenance facility or the service plaza rest stop — but even that's a major maybe, the state agency's Project Manager Cassandra Gascon Bligh emphasized before a crowd of at least 75 residents from Becket, Otis, Blandford and surrounding communities.
Listing multiple hurdles involving lack of public support, funding and permitting requirements, Bligh assured the audience that the Otis alternative at Algerie Road south of the Becket town line "should be dismissed for any future consideration."
But the two Blandford possibilities are "more favorable options for further consideration," she pointed out in her summary of the state's draft feasibility study of a new interchange. That's because those two alternatives would be less costly, with reduced adverse effects, greater benefits and at least some community support from Westfield to ease traffic tie-ups at exit 3 in that city.
The Algerie Road site in Otis was rejected, Bligh said, because it would be the most expensive at nearly $38 million, has the most complex terrain with steep slopes, and minimal benefits with the least projected use and minimum travel time savings.
It also had the greatest negative effects, she said, on open space and communities with economically stressed residents, and had the most intense public opposition because of increased traffic on local Otis and Becket roads.
After state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli pressed Bligh for an official confirmation that the Otis interchange option dead, she told the audience, "that's a great idea, that's done, you can cheer," eliciting applause.
He also restated his longstanding appeal for eliminating tolls between exit 1 in West Stockbridge and exit 3 in Westfield, noting that the stretch between exit 4 at I-91 in Springfield and exit 7 in Ludlow remains toll-free.
Public comments from 20 members of the audience tilted strongly against any new exit.
Becket resident Neil Toomey, who operates a tree farm in the town, blasted a "ham-fisted" approach by "the monied interests of the Westfield Chamber of Commerce and real estate speculators" for driving the push for a new interchange. He accused the MassDOT study group of "largely ignoring" what he described as an effort to shift congestion, air pollution and noise "to one of the last great places in Massachusetts."
He cited "false, unsubstantiated narratives of pollution reduction and economic benefits" by project supporters.
"We have a now-beautiful part of the Berkshires with abundant natural resources and landowners who have lived here for decades and generations protecting these values from precisely this kind of degradation," he said. "Promoting an exit in the hilltowns does a disservice to those of us living here by ignoring our values and destroying a landscape that we have demonstrated a responsibility to protect and preserve."
A "no-build" decision is a very possible outcome of the study, Bligh said. "MassDOT is not recommending whether a project should or should not move forward. If anything went forward, remember this is a conceptual study and anything would go through rigorous environmental design."
"If there's not support for this at the town level in Blandford and surrounding communities, it's not going to move forward," she said. "We're not pushing anything on anyone; we are identifying potential options. Support from local stakeholders is going to be critical."
Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat whose district includes the hilltowns of Becket, Otis, Blandford and Russell adjoining the interstate, suggested public opposition makes a strong case for abandoning consideration of a new interchange.
"No one in Boston is pushing to spend $30 million in Western Massachusetts," he said. "If the towns are not pushing for it, the project will stop."
But, he also pointed out that ever since the turnpike was built 60 years ago, "people have wondered why there's such a long distance between exits 2 and 3. Every few years, this same topic comes up."
He noted that some of his Blandford constituents have questioned why they can't gain access to the interstate.
"'No' is an option, and it's our option, not the state's," Pignatelli said. "If this issue comes up again in five years, I'm going to refer back to this study, and I'm going to say, the community said no, loud and clear, we don't need to talk about it ever again. I think this process has been good; we're all better informed at this stage."
"I think the entire idea should be dropped right now," Becket resident Barbara Wacholder said. "To spend one more second on this plan is a sin." Either site in Blandford would only save drivers 11 to 13 minutes per trip, the state study notes.
"That's nothing," she insisted. "The reward is not worth the risk."
However, Blandford resident Ted Cousineau supported a new interchange. "Our communities are not attracting younger generations," he said. "Our communities are dying. We're going to protect our environment, but we have to think of the future, too. Who's going to carry the ball? My kids don't live in Blandford; they can't afford it. If we don't have a growing community, then what?"
Bligh commented that securing federal and state funding for a 12-year interchange project would be a long and winding road; estimates are at just under $30 million for the Blandford maintenance facility and $34 million at the rest stop service area, not including engineering design, environmental permits and right-of-way access.
Any federal grants for an interchange project would require shovels in the ground within 18 months. But planning, permitting and securing additional funding for an interchange would take up to four more years, according to MassDOT's timeline, before any construction could begin.
Also, federal support would require major, expensive design upgrades for the so-called Western Turnpike — from Route 128 outside Boston to the New York state line — because the pike was built before the interstate highway system's higher standards were in place. The Mass Pike was later designated as I-90.
"This alone poses a financial obligation and engineering challenge," said Bligh.
Regional funding from the state's metropolitan planning organizations would be problematic, not only because of competition from multiple other local projects but also an interchange would eat up too large a percentage of available money.
MassDOT began its "conceptual planning study examining the feasibility of a new interchange" nearly two years ago at the request of the state Legislature. The distance between exit 2 in Lee and exit 3 in Westfield is the longest no-access stretch on the turnpike, and the seventh longest in the federal interstate system.
During her presentation of MassDOT's preliminary working group study on whether a new interchange is needed, Bligh explained:
— The only significant improvements in "level of service" at several intersections off the turnpike in the Hampden County towns of Russell and Westfield were found in the two Blandford alternatives.
— Noise during peak commuting times would have the greatest effect on residents near the Blandford maintenance center.
— Air quality from reduced greenhouse emissions would improve from reduced travel mileage and fewer delays if one of the Blandford interchanges were built.
— Travel times would be improved for nearby hilltown residents if a Blandford interchange is built, giving them enhanced prospects for finding a job and improving access for area businesses.
— Negative community effects, especially for economically disadvantaged households, were significant for the now-rejected Algerie Road site in Otis, but not in Blandford.
MassDOT will hold its next public meeting at the Blandford Town Hall from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 10, to focus on a possible interchange in that town. After that, a complete draft report will be posted online for a 30-day public comment period, with any revisions incorporated into a final study to be submitted to state lawmakers.
To determine how much public support there might be in Blandford for a new exit, Pignatelli proposed an all-day town ballot.