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THOMAS FARRAGHER

Blandford watches the world whiz by on the Pike — and that’s just the way its residents like it

Small town's voters say 'no' to a new exit hailed as a key economic tool

The location where an eastbound and westbound ramp would be built in the town of Blandford. Residents there voted 79-63 to reject the idea of a new exit.
The location where an eastbound and westbound ramp would be built in the town of Blandford. Residents there voted 79-63 to reject the idea of a new exit.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

BLANDFORD — It’s a mistake a lot of people have made at least once. I know I have. It’s 60 minutes’ worth of transportation trauma in Western Massachusetts.

Miss Exit 3 on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Westfield and prepare yourself for a stress-inducing 30-mile ride to some woefully wrong coordinates on your own personal compass.

That’s how long it’ll take you to reach Exit 2 in Lee, where distracted and dejected motorists can begin to backtrack to correct a dispiriting and time-consuming mistake. The ride of shame.

Voters here earlier this month had a chance to do something about that stretch of transportation no man’s land.

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“Do you favor construction of a new exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Town of Blandford?” voters were asked.

By just a 16-vote margin, they sent a message that had echoes of what film star Greta Garbo is reputed to have once famously said: “I want to be alone.”

The local election was the latest punctuation point in a long-simmering debate about economic development, local control, and the rural character of a little town (pop. 1,200) where savvy drivers have been known to make use of a makeshift exit by coasting through an unguarded gate at a highway maintenance facility.

But now the rules of the road have been made clear: You still cannot get from there to here. That 79-63 municipal vote made it official.

“I was for the exit because these small towns are dying,” 76-year-old Ted Cousineau told me the other day outside the Blandford Town Hall, where he checks in as his community’s cemetery commissioner and burial agent.

Russell resident Bruce Anderson stood near where an eastbound ramp was proposed that would allow nearby community members easier access to their home.
Russell resident Bruce Anderson stood near where an eastbound ramp was proposed that would allow nearby community members easier access to their home. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“Our population in this region is decreasing,” he said. “This year, we only had like 36 students graduate from the high school, and that’s a regional school of six towns. So we need growth, and the only way we’re going to get it is by getting our fiber optics in for computers and a turnpike exit to make the commute easier.”

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Better count on those fiber optics. Because that off-ramp to Blandford is dead.

There hasn’t been a new exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike since Exit 10A opened in Millbury, in Worcester County, in 2007.

The idea of an exit between Exits 2 and 3 had been on the drawing board for years. After all, the area from Westfield to Lee is one of the longest stretches of exit-less road in the federal interstate highway system.

“It’s the longest gap on the Pike anywhere in the Commonwealth,” Westfield Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. said. “There had to be a reason for that. I’m sure somebody made somebody mad.”

Mad? That’s a good word for those distracted drivers, casually tuning their radios or chatting with passengers as they whiz by their intended exit. Cue the expletives. And a tailor-made ad for the pro-exit campaign.

“The goal was to improve traffic through my city,” Humason said. “And to give the foothills of the Berkshires a better bite of the economic apple.”

Voters, however, disagreed.

“At that point, I threw up my hands and said, ‘Fine. You’ve decided you don’t want it, and now you’ll probably never get it,’ ” Humason said. “I literally groaned. I slapped my head and shook it. What are you doing? This was your big chance! They could have gotten the ball into the end zone and they stopped on the 1-yard line.”

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And so, that 30-mile ride to nowhere remains firmly in place along that to-the-horizon, unbroken stretch of asphalt.

“It’s one thing if you’re doing it for a nice fall foliage ride,” Humason said. “It’s beautiful. But if you’re trying to get home at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Kill me now.’ I don’t want to be on the road any more than I have to.”

State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, called the latest attempt for a local exit here a once-in-a-generation chance. Now, an opportunity lost.

“Every few years, people will say, ‘How come there’s such a mileage difference between [Exits] 2 and 3? We’re dying out here,’ ” Pignatelli said. “Back when I was a kid, there were mills and factories along the local roads, and then the turnpike got built and that was the beginning of the demise. It changed the landscape.”

But the voters have spoken, he said. “I’m a great believer that politicians need to be thinking about the next generation,‘' said Pignatelli. “This was a generational transformation. They didn’t see it that way. And it’s their call.”

That’s precisely the way Bruce Anderson sees it. A former supervisor at the Chester-Blandford State Forest, he’s lived in nearby Russell since 1966. His son lives near where the Blandford exit would have been built. He thinks the off-ramp is unneeded.

Anderson, 79, gave me a tour of the area the other day, narrating from behind the wheel of his SUV.

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“This is the thrilling center of Blandford, OK?” he told me. “Wait ‘til you see the church. It’s a beautiful church.”

And it’s a beautiful little town, an undulant piece of land, plenty of green space and handsome homes.

“This is the area where the exit is supposed to come out,” he told me as we pulled up to what might have been. “I don’t want the interchange. I think the rural nature would be lost.”

When I asked what he would say to those who argue that it’s time to join the 21st century, he smiled and replied: “I’m saying I want to live in the 18th century! How’s that sound? I understand that progress has to go on. And what’s going to happen by 2040, I have no idea.”

What happens then, he said, will be for others to decide.

What happens now is this: The turnpike will continue to pass Blandford by.

Back at town hall, Joshua Garcia, Blandford’s town administrator, said he maintained official neutrality on the question about the new Pike exit.

“Personally?” he said. “Yeah, absolutely I was in favor of having a highway exit as part of the larger discussion we’ve been having in the hilltown region.”

So why would residents vote that way? “You see what happens in other communities when you open up an exit,” Garcia said. “There’s concern about traffic and the type of growth we’ll start seeing in Blandford. But even that’s debatable, too, because we have a lot of protected wetlands around here. They don’t want the rural character of this small town diminished.”

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And so that long gap on the Pike will remain a test of endurance and attention.

There will remain those daydream-induced motoring errors, and those pitiful tales about missing that exit on the Pike.

“Everybody’s made that mistake and missed the exit and thought, ‘Oh God, I just killed my day,‘ ” Humason told me.

So pay attention out there.

It’s a still a long ride from Westfield to Lee.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.