From traffic-clogger to economy-booster

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August 16, 2013, 7:38 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston/Natick, Mass.) - Not that many people like paying tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike or other toll roads. But for anyone who’s ever sat stuck in a Mass. Pike plaza jam – but then motored at full speed through a New Hampshire "open road"  toll – there was reason to be thankful this week: State officials committed to a $200 million project to remove all the Pike’s toll plazas by mid-2017, and replace them with overhead electronic gantries over the main lanes of the Pike.

With traffic moving at the 55 or 65 m.p.h. limit, the devices will read EZ Pass transponders – or license plates – to bill motorists for tolls owed for using the turnpike.

It’s not just traffic relief the program promises, though. Many real-estate experts are speculating the project could, over time, unlock millions of dollars of real-estate development in some of the hottest markets of the state. That’s because compared to most normal highway interchanges, Turnpike toll plazas now have a complex of ramps and toll booths the size of a small office park or strip mall as motorists enter – a land use that can be eliminated when tolls are collected at speed on the main lanes of the 138-mile Turnpike, potentially freeing up some toll plaza land to actually become office parks or strip malls or industrial/warehousing complexes.

"Imagine the toll booths not being in the way," Mass. DOT Highway Administrator Frank DePaola said in an interview requested by NECN Friday. "We could shrink" the turnpike infrastructure "down and free up property for future development."

Under the automated toll collection project being pursued by the DOT, all funded by Turnpike tolls, 24 toll plazas from East Boston to West Stockbridge will be demolished and functionally replaced by 17 toll-collection gantries erected over the main lanes of the Pike. State officials hope to begin the physical construction of the gantries next spring, complete it by the summer of 2016, then after a period of up to six months of testing the gantries to make sure they work properly, demolish the tolls and move to all-electronic collection in 2017. For motorists not using EZ Pass transponders, the system would photograph their license plates and send them a bill for the toll due.

In the hands of developers willing to foot the bill for reconfiguring approach ramps designed around the safety and visibility and backup-storage requirements of toll plazas, some number of the interchanges could become prime redevelopment parcels – all enjoying, by definition, superb highway access.

"I think a very good example would be the Allston-Brighton area in Boston where there's a big, large open area of land now that the [CSX] railroad operation has moved" from Beacon Park Yard to Worcester and Westborough facilities, DePaola said. The Turnpike’s toll plazas in Allston sit on land surrounded by Harvard University, the Genzyme biotech plant, and Boston University, and with toll booths and many ramps and railroad yards cleared out could become one of the biggest, hottest redevelopment possibilities in the city.

From the edge of Central Square in East Boston to West Newton to Weston to Natick, Framingham, Westborough and beyond, many of the Turnpike’s soon-to-be-disused toll operations land and structures and parking for toll collectors could become appealing to developers. "There definitely is potential at our existing interchanges and toll plazas," DePaola said.

Robert Buckley, a top Boston-area redevelopment attorney with Riemer & Braunstein LLP, said like any "brownfields" site or site requiring modifying civil infrastructure, turning the toll plazas into the development parcels of the 2020s won’t be simple but will likely be worth it. "There is a cost, but the cost relative to the return is well worth the consideration," Buckley said. "The Allston site, some of the plazas within 10 miles of Route 128 could definitely be of interest, and when it comes to easier commuting, time is money."

"More important, though, than what these sites can become is what the overall project will do – make traffic flow and flow better for everyone," Buckley said. "As a state, we don’t invest in infrastructure as we should or as we have in the past. Moving traffic is a component of this project that makes the sites not just adjacent to the highway more valuable, but all around the highway for everyone more valuable."

With a massive statewide backlash setting in against a key component of the recently enacted $800 million transportation financing package – the application of the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to a still far-from-clear swath of software and computer design services – streams of development income from old turnpike toll plazas could be critical to helping cover what’s been called a chronic $1 billion a year gap in what the state needs to invest in transportation maintenance and upgrades and what it spends.

"I think the project makes sense for its own reasons," DePaola said of the automated toll collection project, "but we are constantly looking for ways to generate more revenues out of our property."

With videographer Daniel A. Valente Jr.

Tags: Boston, massachusetts, Peter Howe, Massachusetts Turnpike, Natick, MassDOT, MA toll booth plazas
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