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Pignatelli Pushing for Commuter Discount on MA Turnpike

Tim Menzies/flickr

Tuesday marked the first full day of the reinstatement of tolls on the westernmost section of the Mass Turnpike.

It’s a blast from the past for drivers traveling between Exit 1 and Exit 6 on the Western Mass Turnpike. After 17 years of toll-free travel, passenger cars are now charged $1.75 from Interchange 1 in West Stockbridge to Interchange 6 connecting to Springfield. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation estimates the tolls will raise $12 million in additional revenue each year, as part of the state’s $500 million transportation finance package. The tolls are the same as they were in 1996 when they were halted. Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of the Fourth Berkshire District says the rates are relatively cheap, pointing out Governor Deval Patrick originally proposed a 30 cent gas tax increase to fund the transportation package.

“I have to remind people that this is a user road,” Pignatelli said. “If you use the road you pay a toll, if you don’t use the road you don’t pay anything on your taxes.”

Instead, a three-cent hike in the gas tax took effect in July. Pignatelli says he plans to file legislation that would establish a frequent commuter discount for Berkshire residents, similar to programs in place for those in East Boston, Charleston and Chelsea.

“I’ll be filing legislation this week to offer a commuter resident discount for Berkshire people who travel on a regular basis to get to work or school,” he said. “It mirrors what other parts of the state already do and it’s a program that already exists on the Turnpike. So hopefully we can get this thing going for people who have to commute on a regular basis.”

Pignatelli says he hopes the discount would be no less than 50 percent, but says he’s already seeing opposition from Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey.

“He flat out just said ‘I do not like discounted programs,” Pignatelli explained. “I said well that being said you already have two programs that are in existence. So unless you are going to eliminate those, which would be very difficult politically because it’s mostly Boston people, then open it up for those of us here in the Berkshires. I told him I was going to file the legislation and he said you have to do what you have to do, but he said ‘I do not like discount programs.”

Jennifer Thompson works in the operating room at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. At a public hearing for the proposed hikes last month, she said taking alternative routes isn’t feasible.

“I need to be there and I need to do my job,” Thompson said. “Taking that 25 minutes to go that way just isn’t feasible for me so therefore using the Turnpike is the best way to go for me. So having a discount would be appreciated.”

Mary Maguire is the Director of Public and Legislative Affairs for AAA Southern New England, which serves 2.4 million drivers statewide. She says she anticipates local residents will seek alternate routes to avoid the tolls, but doesn’t expect a decrease in Turnpike travel because of out-of-state travelers.

“Because we have so many out of state visitors who travel the Turnpike at this time of year when the leaves are changing, we are not foreseeing any kind of dramatic impact on travel,” Maguire said. “The fact that gasoline prices are falling pretty significantly; they are about 45 cents lower than they were at this time last year. I think that may also help make up for the reinstatement of tolls.”

Legislatively, the Western Mass Turnpike is defined as the 127 miles from Exit 1 in West Stockbridge to Exit 14 in Weston. Within the state’s finance package, money collected from the new tolls would be required by law to be used on improvements to this section of the highway only. It now costs $5.85 to travel the entire Mass Turnpike.

Currently the state DOT has $18 million available each year for improvements on the western pike, and the additional $12 million would raise that annual amount to $30 million. State Highway Administrator Frank DePaola says the state has a backlog of capital improvements projects to bridges, guardrails, and drainage culverts that total $160 million. He says an independent engineer suggested the DOT act on a five-year plan investing $45 million annually to address those needs. DePaola says the DOT will work with the legislature to fill that $15 million gap to follow the recommendation. In a separate plan, the DOT is aiming to install automated toll collectors above the turnpike. High speed cameras and scanning equipment will be placed on structures similar to overhead road signs that will read EZ Pass transponders, charging the driver immediately or taking a picture of the license plate to bill the driver later. The change is expected for July 2016. DePaola says under this plan, a flat rate will charged at different toll locations one near Exit 1, another near Blandford, and one between Exits 4 and 5.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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