Our Opinion: Turnpike exit process sure to be a long one

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The woman who joked at a public hearing last week that she won't live long enough to see a new Massachusetts Turnpike interchange between Exit 2 and 3 certainly won't be the only one to go to her reward before it is built. There should be plenty of time ahead to determine exactly where the exit should go — or if it should be built at all.

The state Department of Transportation, charged by the Legislature to conduct a study of a new Western Massachusetts exit, provided early cost estimates last Thursday during an I-90 Interchange Study Working Group meeting in Lenox (Eagle, Feb. 9). Residents and town officials from Becket and Otis were present to express their concerns about the impact a new exit would have on local roads and more generally on their rural lifestyle.

Three locations, two in Blandford and one in Otis, are under review, and cost estimates provided by DOT officials ranged between $29 million and $34 million depending on the site. Those already substantial costs are sure to rise because that is the nature of highway projects. The DOT's lead staffer on the project acknowledged Thursday that the price tag for improvements to local roads so they could handle increased traffic — estimated at between $10 million and $13.6 million — will rise. The small towns can't finance this so the project's ultimate cost to the state is sure to raise eyebrows among eastern Massachusetts legislators.

The new exit would lessen traffic at the Lee (Exit 2) and Westfield (Exit 3) interchanges, with Westfield likely to receive the greatest benefit in terms of reduced congestion. Hilltown residents, however, can be forgiven for being less concerned about the benefits to Westfield than they are the detriments to their roads and to their lives. Many live where they do specifically because the roadways are not burdened by traffic. The stretch between Exit 2 and 3, however, is one of the longest between interchanges in the federal interstate highway system and the presence of a new exit would reduce travel times for many. The exit could potentially attract new residents and businesses to small towns suffering from population losses that have reduced their tax bases.

The interchange concept is not a new one as it dates back to the days when there was a Massachusetts Turnpike Authority — it was merged with the DOT nine years ago — and there was discussion of an Eastern Bypass to reduce traffic on Routes 7 and 20 going north. A long ago Turnpike Authority chairman told The Eagle editorial board that the Authority wouldn't "sue its way" through county towns, signalling the end of the bypass concept. Potential lawsuits are another factor today as the DOT considers the cost of another exit.

The DOT, which plans on issuing a draft report in May, will host a public hearing in the spring, and in the interim we urge the department to consider the suggestion of Becket resident Larry Abrams (see letter this page) that two other sites relatively close to Routes 8 and Routes 20, roads which can better handle increased traffic than small hill town roads, be explored. This project may be 10 years away according to the DOT, assuming it is done at all. If it is done, it must be done right, after all options are considered.

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