Mass Pike interchange discussions return to Becket, Otis

BECKET — From Boston to Seattle, Interstate 90 serves as the longest highway in the nation, spanning more than 3,000 miles from coast to coast.

Locally, a 30-mile stretch from Exit 2 in Lee to Exit 3 in Westfield marks the longest span of the highway between exits without an interruption. Traveling west from Exit 3, the turnpike proceeds through Russell, Blandford, Otis and Becket before it reaches Lee.

The creation of the I-90 Interchange Study Working Group by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) was made to examine the feasibility of a new interchange on the Massachusetts Turnpike, but one Becket resident is still not convinced that an option outlined in the town of Otis would be the ideal site for the exit.

Speaking out against a possible interchange at Algerie Road, Becket resident Larry Abrams had requested at a Sept. 4 select board meeting in Becket that a reminder be sent to MassDOT, regarding the public meetings put off for nearly eight months.

Abrams was critical of the lengthy process and remains wary of additional costs that may not be included in MassDOT’s initial projections.

At the working group’s last meeting on Feb. 7, three different locations in Otis and in Blandford were discussed as a potential option for an additional interchange. MassDOT’s current concept options would place an interchange at either Algerie Road in Otis, at the Blandford Maintenance Facility or at the Blandford Service Plaza, according to presentation documents from February.

After cancelling meetings originally scheduled for this past spring, the working group announced last week that it plans to meet on Oct. 2 for a working group meeting and Oct. 10 for a public hearing. Both meetings will be held at Blandford Town Hall.

“At worse, the Becket meeting was like chicken soup,” said Abrams. “It makes you feel better that it happened and people listen attentively and asked interesting questions. At best, calls were made to create a fairer process.

“Unfortunately, MassDOT still chooses to withhold our documents from decision-makers in the I-90 Interchange Study Working Group.”

Abrams is the coordinator of the local group Opposition to the Algerie Interchange, which has 300 members. Their goal is to kill the possibility of an interchange on Algerie Road. If Algerie Road is decided as the site for a future interchange, the group then wants to expose flaws they see in the public outreach process by the state.

In an Aug. 29 letter sent to MassDOT and state representatives, Abrams writes, “We are not opposed to all development, just development that does more harm than good.”

Abrams said he would like to see the state’s working group discuss the documents and letters he has prepared for them, which includes his estimates for undisclosed added costs to the project.

Initial MassDOT cost projections run the Algerie interchange at $37.8 million — $26.3 million plus an additional $11.5 million to improve and widen the routes from Algerie Road to Route 23 and Bonny Rigg Hill Road to Route 8. MassDOT also says that an Algerie interchange would cause an increase of 5,771 trips per day on the backroads of Becket and Otis, according to the study.

In a Sept. 8 letter to MassDOT, Abrams said it is conceivable that the true cost of an Algerie interchange could be as high as $60 million.

“By going directly over state routes, [MassDOT] could avoid the $11.5 million to upgrade back roads, and it could avoid or substantially reduce the costs for the listed contingencies,” he wrote. “This approach would provide an intelligent development plan for our region.”

Two interchanges, one in Russell and one by Jacob’s Pillow, for example, could be cheaper than an Algerie interchange if costs are to exceed the expected $37.8 million, said Abrams.
Despite aiming to draft and release a final interchange study this past May, MassDOT will continue to discuss the study’s alternatives analysis and draft recommendations in order to solicit input.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who has 17 years of personal experience on the Massachusetts Turnpike, said the end result could still leave the 30-mile stretch of highway without an additional interchange.

“Even if a location was agreed on today, the process is still 10 to 15 years away from a new interchange,” said Pignatelli. “There’s many more environmental hurdles and federal hurdles to go through,”

The efforts of Pignatelli and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, helped secure a line item for roughly $75,000 in the 2017 budget that created the I-90 Interchange Study Working Group.

The working group scrapped the initial areas of interest in Becket including Loose Tooth Road, Werden Road and Johnson Road earlier in the process.

The public will learn next month at the Oct. 2 working group meeting if Algerie Road in Otis remains a potential site for an interchange.

“Becket is off the table and has been off the table for several months,” Pignatelli told the Record. “In Otis, if I was a betting man, I’d be willing to bet that’s going to go, too.”

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