Neighbors worry new Mass. Turnpike exit would take toll on neighborhood

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LENOX — If a new interchange comes to the western end of the Massachusetts Turnpike, it will have to overtake doubts that area residents continue to express about any such project.

As it tools along on a study ordered up the state Legislature, the state Department of Transportation now is predicting costs for a new interchange, which would be built between Exit 2 in Lee and Exit 3 in Westfield.

At an I-90 Interchange Study Working Group meeting Thursday in Lenox, the DOT listed early cost estimates to create an interchange and to improve connecting local roads at three prospective locations.

Those costs range from $29.5 million at the DOT's Blandford Maintenance Facility to $37.8 million at Algerie Road in East Otis.

The cost to create an interchange at the third location under review, the Blandford Service Plaza, is $34 million.

But as they absorbed reports from the DOT's consultants on designs, a vocal audience at the meeting, including people who live near proposed interchanges, expressed concerns.

"We live in the hilltowns because we love it here," said Kathleen Williams, of East Otis, who lives close to the Algerie Road location. She asked the working group to consider how a new interchange will affect the quality of life in rural places.

Chris Bouchard, Becket's highway superintendent, warned DOT representatives and their consultants that, because town road crews don't work around the clock, local routes might not be safe to withstand heavier traffic volume certain times of year.

"It's going to cause some issues, especially if there is no snow removal," Bouchard said.

He noted estimates that call for shifts in vehicle patterns, which could bring 5,000 new trips through a particular area.

"That's a lot of vehicles for these small communities," Bouchard said.

For each of the three proposed sites, a DOT consultant estimated how much it would cost to prepare local connecting roads to handle more vehicles.

In some cases, that would involve widening roads. In others, it would mean reconstructing existing overpass bridges that are too small or sit on supports that would get in the way of new off-ramps.

Rebecca Stone, the Otis town administrator, questioned the cost estimates.

"The local road upgrades are nowhere near accurate," Stone said.

For the Algerie Road site, the interchange itself would cost $26.3 million, with another $11.5 million for local road improvements, according to estimates presented Thursday. For the two other locations, costs are estimated to be $19.4 million for an interchange at the Blandford Maintenance Facility site, with another $10.1 million in local road improvements. For the service plaza location, the costs are $20.4 million for the interchange and $13.6 million for road upgrades.

The costs do not include possible expenses from land-takings.

DOT officials cautioned that the costs pinpointed so far — as well as other details — are preliminary.

Cassandra Gascon, the agency's lead staffer on the study, said the costs estimates on local road improvements would rise. She asked residents to take the feasibility study's early findings as part of a longer process.

"If the study moves on, it would be looked at in much more detail," Gascon said.

Next up, she said, will be closer analysis of how new interchanges would affect local roads, as well deep dives into the economic and public health effects of new turnpike exits.

The DOT expects to complete a draft of the study by May. It plans to call for public comments at a meeting this spring that is not yet scheduled.

Once the report is done, it will be sent to the Legislature. It will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to proceed.

Still, Ethan Britland, a DOT project manager, said public opinion plays a role.

"Public comment is a big part of it," he said. "It's a challenge, and every study is different."

At the working group's meeting last September, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that, if residents and town officials strongly oppose construction, he would be against it as well.

The likely time frame for construction if the project advances, Britland said, would be 10 years.

That time estimate brought a quip from a woman in the audience, who said, "So I'll be dead."

"Why are you here?" a man beside her in the audience asked with a smile.

David Derrig, a consultant with AECOM, provided estimates on how new interchanges would shift traffic patterns, based on data that forecast population, employment and new housing in the region by the year 2040.

Derrig said that data suggests that in 21 years, while the state's population will have grown by 6 percent, it will be up a hardly detectable 0.06 percent in Berkshire County, compared to growth of 4.2 percent in Hampden County and 3.2 percent in Hampshire County.

He told the session that the computer model predicts a new interchange would save 328,000 to 475,000 hours of travel time per year by reducing trip distances.

The stretch between Exits 2 and 3 is one of the longest in the federal interstate highway system.

In addition to saving people time, Derrig said the model forecasts that a new interchange would reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions by 1,775 to 2,500 metric tons a year.

Still, members of the audience, squinting at maps displayed on flat-screen TVs, had their doubts.

"I see a dirt road that's going to pick up 400 vehicles a day," one man said. "Four hundred additional cars on a dirt road seems weird."

Like others on the project, Derrig cautioned the public against reacting too strongly to elements of the proposal. "We're using crayons right now at the feasibility level," Derrig said.

Stone, the Otis administrator, said a new exit closer to her Town Hall would shorten her commute, but she acknowledged others in the audience by flagging concerns about the overall effect on the region.

"It's going to be fantastic for me, but do we really want to see that?" she asked, referring to changes in the nature of rural areas.

James Adams, a property owner on Algerie Road in East Otis, warned the working group that an interchange there could compromise the setting for the Bonnie Brae camp run by the Girl Scouts.

One of Adams' neighbors, Edward Herbst, said any project should not bring harm to a prized 330-acre pond in the area known for its clear waters.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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