The free ride is over on the Massachusetts Turnpike between the West Stockbridge and Chicopee exits, but how much the tolls will be is a piece of unsettled business.
The new transportation funding law will restore tolls early this fall, once the state Department of Transportation closely reviews the legislation and prepares a new toll fee schedule, according to Sara Lavoie, press secretary for MassDOT.
Approved on Beacon Hill last week, the law requires MassDOT to "devise and implement a fair and reasonable fee structure" from interchange 1 at the New York state line (Stockbridge) to interchange 6 (Chicopee).
The new transportation law aims to raise $800 million a year by 2018 to pump up funding for Berkshire and other regional transit authorities, construction projects, Boston's metropolitan transit system and other priorities. It raises taxes on gas by an additional 3 cents to 24 cents a gallon and on cigarettes by $1 to $3.51 per pack, effective Wednesday.
But MassDOT has 90 days to come up with details on restoring the western-end MassPike tolls that were eliminated in 1996 by Gov. William Weld after an outcry from western Massachusetts residents who complained that the fees were helping fund the Big Dig highway project in Boston.
A meeting of MassDOT leaders is planned later this week, Lavoie said. The completed plan is to be reviewed by the public as well as by two Statehouse committees. The schedule for two public hearings will be widely publicized as soon as it's set, she said.
"At this stage, we are targeting an implementation date in early fall," Lavoie stated.
The scenario calls on MassDOT to provide the plan to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which includes state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, as well as to the Joint Committee on Transportation, whose members include state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams.
MassDOT must post a report on its website explaining why restoring the tolls was necessary. The department will schedule at least two public hearings; a two-week public comment period also is required after each hearing.
Lavoie pointed out that tolls have been collected continuously from commercial vehicles between interchanges 1 and 6, even though passenger-type vehicles have not been assessed tolls.
"This means that the toll booth infrastructure and personnel are already in place," she said.
Lavoie also noted logistical concerns include reprogramming the E-ZPass system and printing new tickets for travelers who pay in cash.
In an interview on Monday, Downing said the Ways and Means Committee would hold an "oversight hearing," but the toll reinstatement does not require its approval. "But we are hearing the public's concerns, and hopefully the plan could be influenced by lawmakers," he said.
Downing also pointed out that the state Secretary of Transportation could decide to remove all tolls from the MassPike in 2017.
Downing said "the plan that's now law is not what I would have proposed." Instead, he said, he would have preferred a sales tax decrease and state income tax increase.
Pignatelli told The Eagle on Monday he has heard from concerned local users of the MassPike.
"I'm hoping that for folks who use that road on a regular basis, whether they go to school or work outside the Berkshires, MassDOT would come up with a special rate or discount for Berkshire or all Massachusetts residents," Pignatelli said. "I think if we can work on those things, it's a good plan moving forward."
Downing agreed that a waiver for Berkshire-based commuters "makes sense," but he suggested also extending a discount to individuals who are referred to medical facilities in Springfield.
Lee resident Robert Jefferys had harsh words for the toll reinstatement.
"The people of Lee do not want to pay for Boston's Big Dig," Jefferys declared. "You take our money and we get nothing back. Salaries are high in Boston and low in Lee. Let them pay."
Cariddi, the North County lawmaker, was on the MassPike when reached for comment for this story.
"For most of the people in my 1st [Berkshire] District, it doesn't affect them that much," Cariddi said. "People in other areas ask, ‘why didn't they do that before?' They say it's people coming from the border states using that end of the Pike and getting a bit of a free ride there."