Our Opinion: Blandford v. 'no exit'

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The proposed Massachusetts Turnpike exit for Algerie Road in Otis — its advocates few, its opponents many— is off the table. There will either be a new exit in Blandford or no new exit at all, and a public meeting in Blandford on Thursday may play a key role in determining which of those options gains favor with state officials.

The Algerie Road alternative was always the weakest option ("'You can cheer': DOT rules out Otis exit," Eagle, Oct. 4). At $38 million, it would have been the most expensive of the three options, has the most complex terrain, the least projected use and the most modest travel time savings. It's not clear why it was ever an option in the first place. On top of that, it generated ferocious opposition because of the likely impact on local roads in Otis and Becket and those who live or near them.

The two Blandford options — one off the maintenance facility, the other from the service plaza — make more sense than Algerie Road in terms of cost and accessibility. The local impact of either of the exits will be considerable. Opponents will be in attendance Thursday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Blandford Town Hall for a Department of Transportation hearing on the two interchange proposals. The DOT will surely be interested in hearing from proponents, who probably won't have an opportunity beyond this one to make their arguments heard.

An argument for the new interchanges is that the one chosen will reduce travel time for hill town residents stuck in the 30-mile expanse between Exit 2 in Lee and Exit 3 in Westfield. Are there residents of Blandford, Otis or Becket who want the convenience of a closer exit? How many in attendance will make the case for the economic benefits of the interchange to residents of those and neighboring towns? One Blandford resident made such a case at last week's DOT meeting at its district headquarters in Lenox, arguing that the hill towns are dying economically and there is nothing in them to keep young people. Attracting more small manufacturers could provide jobs for those young people, and a turnpike exit between Exits 2 and 3 could help the county keep or attract those jobs-providing manufacturers by decreasing travel time for sales and distribution.

A DOT study group found that the new intersection would result in significant improvements in "level of service" to overburdened intersections in Russell and Westfield off the Route 3 exit. Will residents or town officials from those communities travel to Blandford on Thursday to buttress that argument? If they do, should their concerns have more or equal weight to the concerns of those in towns directly impacted by the new interchange? At last week's state DOT meeting, the agency's project manager, Cassandra Gascon Bligh, emphasized that "support from local stakeholders is going to be critical" for one of the remaining two options to go forward.

Ms. Bligh also made it clear that even if a Blandford interchange is approved by the state, the success of the roughly 12-year project is far from assured. The cost — $30 million for the maintenance facility, $34 million for the service plaza — is considerable, and the projected four-year planning and permitting process would make it impossible to receive federal grants that require shovels to be in the ground within 18 months. It is difficult to imagine the state funding a project in the far-western area of the state with so many traffic issues requiring immediate action within the Route 128 belt around Boston.

Nonetheless, the process goes forward, with another critical step coming Thursday in Blandford.

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