Our Opinion: Time to roll out DOT Pike report

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A group within the state Department of Transportation has been working for 18 months on an overdue report concerning a new Massachusetts Turnpike interchange between Exit 2 in Lee and Exit 3 in Westfield. From a story that ran in The Eagle on Thursday, July 25, the group is completing the long-awaited report for a September release. Some sections of the report are described as complete.

If an exit recommendation has been determined, the group should finish its report and let residents of the affected community and communities know. August vacations aren't a good excuse when the report is overdue. The DOT should then schedule public hearings in the impacted town or towns to hear from residents.

It has been clear, ever since an open house in April 2018, that the DOT is focusing on possible interchanges at Algerie Road in Otis, the DOT's Blandford facility and the Blandford Service Plaza. The DOT and its consultants, AECOM, originally planned to issue a final report by November or December 2018. The deadline was then extended until January or February of this year, which is forgivable given the impact of that decision. But winter and spring passed without the report being issued, and after an August fine-tuning, it will supposedly be released in September.

An August or early September release of the report, which will go to the state Legislature, should be accompanied by the scheduling of immediate public information sessions. The April 2018 session is so long ago as to be irrelevant, and the release of the report — unless it recommends that an interchange not be built, which seems unlikely — will generate specific questions that could not have been asked at public information sessions more than a year ago.

The 30-mile section of the Pike between Exits 2 and 3 is one of the longest in the U.S. interstate system without an interchange. That in and of itself is not an argument for an interchange, but the manner in which a serious accident in that stretch can back up traffic for many miles is a factor in its favor. A new exit could also attract business and population to a region that has little in the way of an economic base and is losing population, most notably its young people.

However, residents have expressed legitimate concerns about the impact on narrow roads, many in need of major repair work, of cars that had been roaring by on the Turnpike for decades now emerging on those roads. The DOT has estimated that as many as 5,000 commercial and passenger vehicles will use the new exit annually. Many residents of the hill towns put down roots there for the specific reason that they wanted that rural isolation. Population growth and increased traffic don't appeal to them. We would like to know if the DOT group considered a suggestion made by Larry Abrams, a resident of Becket for more than 30 years, in a letter to The Eagle of Feb. 12 that two sites east of Blandford and west of Becket are so closely aligned with Route 20 that an exit would not require travel on backcountry roads and the "lovely rural environment" would not be severely impacted.

At any rate, the DOT group needs to hasten its report polishing, release its conclusions and quickly schedule hearings on the decision. Residents in Otis, Becket and Blandford have waited long enough.

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