Little in day-to-day life is more frustrating than being stuck an endless traffic jam. But that was the situation for westbound travelers on the Massachusetts Turnpike on Friday afternoon. Traffic backed up in Sturbridge, where the Pike connects with Interstate 84, causing an astounding 45-mile slowdown.
Traffic volume on long weekends always presents challenges. But that’s precisely why Bay State transportation officials need to show more foresight in anticipating problems and greater urgency in responding when they occur. Massachusetts hasn’t been as aggressive as neighboring states in tackling slowdowns caused at least in part by toll plazas. State officials, in response, offer a now-familiar litany of laments. The narrowness of the Pike itself. The fiscal pressures on MassDOT. The long time needed to make roadway changes happen.
Better days are on the way, claims MassDOT highway division administrator Frank DePaola, explaining that his division is looking into an open-road tolling system that, once begun, would eliminate all toll plazas in two to three years. Fair enough, but that’s essentially the same answer that then-Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan gave in June 2011, when queried about why the Pike wasn’t then pursuing highway-speed tolling like that at New Hampshire’s Hampton tolls. Time may be hurrying on, but MassDOT’s planning process isn’t moving fast enough.
If long-term fixes appear stuck in planning molasses, lesser remedies also are taking far too long. Why not electronic signs to let drivers know that the traffic jam they’ve encountered stretches from here to eternity? Forewarned, many would exit the Pike for other routes. MassDOT has been testing such signs on Interstate 93, says DePaola, and the Pike should have them in place by Thanksgiving. That’s good, but this is hardly new technology. Why has it taken so long?
Meanwhile, when monstrous backups like Friday’s occur, Pike officials should be honor-bound to waive the tolls at trouble spots. Drivers would still have to slow down, but not as much. Nor would there be the delays from lane shifting and sorting as drivers reposition for E-ZPass or cash-only lanes and as toll-takers wait while cash-payers fumble for money. “It would be a really slippery slope for me to get on,” says DePaola. “Unless there is a safety issue, I have taken the position that we are not waiving tolls.”
That’s the wrong attitude. Backups like last Friday’s may well cost the state more in lost sales-tax revenues than it would lose in tolls. Many of those travelers trapped in their cars would otherwise be shopping, dining, or spending money at tourist spots — and contributing 6.25 percent of their expenditures to the Commonwealth. Many of them will probably cancel plans for future getaways, just to avoid the Pike. Pike users should be treated like customers, not captives.