The congestionthat brought the Massachusetts Turnpike to a standstill on the Sunday after Thanksgiving was yet another reminder that the state’s main east-west artery is always an accident or breakdown away from gridlock. That raises an obvious question: What would the overburdened highway look like if casino traffic were added to the mix?
Many of the casino plans taking shape in central and western Massachusetts would add new strains to the Pike, and the state casino commission vetting applications has properly vowed to ensure that any resort won’t worsen traffic. The Pike runs just past Springfield, where local officials have been touting the highway’s proximity as a key advantage. Another possible casino site, in Palmer, sits next to the Pike and close enough to the junction with Interstate 84 — the very intersection that was ground zero for traffic snarls last Sunday — to worry regular users of the highway.
Under the gambling law, casino developers have to commit to a traffic mitigation plan. But the localities that get first crack at negotiating casino agreements, and then the state commission that will ultimately pick the winners, have a lot of discretion to define what’s acceptable. Bearing nightmares like last Sunday in mind, they should require developers to aim high.
Stephen Crosby, the chair of the commission, has spoken in the past about leveraging the casino license process to pay for major transit investments like South Coast Rail. In an interview this week, Crosby made it clear that thinking could apply to roads like the Pike, too. “The easy thing is to eliminate adverse effects,” he said. “But it is also an opportunity to try to figure out a way to be transformative, either on highways or public transportation.”
In other words, mitigation should mean more than just preventing traffic from getting worse. In urban areas like Springfield, that could mean transit improvements to offset increased strain on highways. It could mean adding lanes, or introducing faster toll-payment methods that would ease congestion. More than just the convenience of drivers is at stake; more casino traffic also means more air pollution, more noise, and more demand for emergency services, all of which must be addressed in the mitigation plans, too.
The initial responsibility for getting the best traffic plans lies with towns and cities, which can’t let the siren call of casino riches prevent them from extracting the best deal they can from developers. But it may ultimately fall to the commission to ensure that the casino plans support statewide transportation priorities.