The free ride for most drivers who use the westernmost portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike will soon come to an end.
Tolls are expected to return for passenger vehicles this fall following almost a two decade absence. The money is part of a transportation bill the legislature gave final approval to last week. The move is not being met with much protest from business groups – or even drivers.
In 1996, then-Governor William Weld used his authority to halt the toll collections between Exit 1 in West Stockbridge and Exit 6 in Springfield. Weld, a Republican, was running against incumbent Democrat John Kerry for the U.S. Senate.
“They saw it was a political gimmick,” said Stan Rosenberg, a Democrat from Amherst who has served in the state Senate since 1991.
Rosenberg says legislators viewed the idea as a ploy by Weld to make himself more popular with voters.
“It was being done for political reasons, not for any significant policy or fiscal reasons, so it just didn’t make sense to us,” Rosenberg says.
Weld did not respond to our requests to comment for this story, but at the time he defended the free pass for cars. He told the Boston Globe that even before his Senate bid, he supported the idea of a toll-less Turnpike.
The backdrop to all of this was the costly Big Dig project going on in Boston. A large portion of the state’s transportation funds were funneled to that. And a popular assumption is the tolls were eliminated as a pay back to Western Massachusetts. Rosenberg says this is nothing more than an urban legend.
“The small amount, it’s probably twelve, fifteen-million dollars worth of tolls today collected at those six exits, that would pale in comparison to the amount of money that we were missing as a result of the money being locked up in Boston, rather than spread equally across the state including western Mass,” he says.
Toll elimination didn’t help Weld, as he lost the election to Kerry by nearly 200,000 votes. Despite leaving office in 1997, Weld’s toll legacy has lived on – until this year, when the Legislature approved the transportation funding bill, ordering toll collections to resume. That’s expected to generate up to $15 million for construction on the Turnpike.
The impending cost for drivers isn’t worrying many in Western Massachusetts. Several chambers of commerce located along the highway say they haven’t heard from any members who are worried about an impact on tourism. The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses near Exits 1 and 2, polled their members last year about the tolls possibly returning.
“And, surprisingly, quite a few of our members said it wasn’t that important to them. Only about 20 percent, 15 percent indicated that there would be a big impact while 52 percent actually said that it would have relatively little impact at all,” says Mike Supranowicz, who heads the Chamber.
In fact, Supranowicz says, members are more concerned about increased gasoline taxes, which were also included in the transportation bill.
Across from the Exit 3 toll plaza in Westfield is a busy ice cream shop. In the parking lot, city resident Bob Stackow says he travels a lot on the western portion of the Turnpike.
“For me, it’s not, not a big deal,” Stackow says.
Stackow says given the price of current tolls, the new fees between Exits 1 and 6 aren’t likely to curtail his use of the highway.
“It’s not really that much money when you really think about it. I mean, if I go to Exit 7, where Ludlow is, it’s a quarter,” he says.
And this indifference to the tolls coming back we heard over and over again from other residents of Western Mass. And that makes sense when you consider that about 80 percent of those who use this portion of the roadway are from out-of-state.
Drivers who use the road and don’t like paying more for it may not have to for long: By law, most tolls on the Turnpike are scheduled to be eliminated in 2017.