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For casinos, road to approval starts with traffic relief

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / February 22, 2012
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As it prepares its bid for a casino resort in Brimfield, MGM Resorts is working feverishly to accomplish an equally difficult feat: build a Massachusetts Turnpike interchange.

It will not be easy. The company is concerned about the rock and ledges at the interchange site. There are wetlands to avoid and nearby neighborhoods that must remain undisturbed. Plus it must navigate a long and complex state and federal approval process that comes with no guarantees. And then there is the cost: an estimated $30 million for roads, ramps, three bridges, and a tollbooth.

It is a tremendous concession aimed at one goal: calming the fears of 3,500 Brimfield residents worried that casino traffic might ruin their rural lives.

No casino project can compete for a coveted state license until the people of the host community endorse the project in a referendum, and casino opponents in many communities have been quick to seize on traffic as a good reason to resist the developments. “Every one of these sites faces a challenge in terms of ease of access,’’ said Clyde Barrow, a casino specialist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “I think every proposal that’s been put forward to this point will require some type of major transportation improvement.’’

Beyond the concerns of local voters, there is also a practical reason to solve traffic problems: traffic jams are bad for business, especially in a competitive market. “What people more and more prefer is to slide off a big highway and right into a garage,’’ said Barrow.

In California, where tribal casinos have been approved on hard-to-reach reservation land, tribes and investors have spent up to $100 million to improve access, including construction of highway interchanges, said William Eadington, professor of economics and a casino specialist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

At least seven casino companies are exploring bids for development rights for a casino in Greater Boston or Western Massachusetts. The state gambling law authorizes up to three resort casinos, with bidding delayed in Southeastern Massachusetts to give the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe a chance to make progress toward federal approval of a tribal casino.

In East Boston, where Suffolk Downs is pursuing a resort casino, officials have been discussing “decades-long traffic issues’’ on the North Shore, chief operating officer Chip Tuttle said in an e-mail. “We would look forward to doing our share of the needed improvements so North Shore commuters can have a better commute.’’

In Foxborough, casino opponents have tried to rally opposition to a Wynn Resorts proposal on Route 1 by citing the heavy traffic flow whenever the New England Patriots are playing a home game at Gillette Stadium. Game day traffic has improved dramatically from the infamous jams of the 1970s, but many believe that the road is still overburdened.

A spokesman for Wynn Resorts said the casino’s projected traffic volume would be similar to “a typical New England Revolution soccer match, but spread out over a longer operating day.’’ And “while Route 1 appears capable of handling that incremental increase with minimal effect,’’ any agreement between the town and the developer to build a casino on Route 1 “would be contingent upon submission of a fully documented traffic study to understand what the impact would be.’’

In Springfield, Ameristar Casinos has hired a traffic consultant to help develop a plan to handle increased volume after a casino opens. “Easy access to the site is extremely important,’’ said Roxann Kinkade, Ameristar’s director of communications. “We don’t want to be an inconvenience to our visitors, to our employees, to neighboring businesses or residents.’’

The MGM Brimfield proposal is heavily dependent on winning approval for a new interchange. When landowner David Callahan pitched the notion of a casino on his land north of the Pike in Brimfield late last year, traffic was the number one concern of local officials and residents. It was Callahan who first proposed the concept of a casino sequestered in the woods of Brimfield, reachable only by an interchange off the Pike, but that is not going to be entirely possible.

The Federal Highway Administration will require that any new offramp be connected to a public street, so MGM cannot completely bar traffic entering from at least one local road, said Charles Irving, a manager of Davenport Cos. a Massachusetts-based development firm that is working as MGM’s partner on the project.

Under its current thinking, MGM would connect its ramp to what is now a rural country road in the neighboring town of Warren. The casino company is pitching the plan as a potential boon for two communities. “It would open up economic development opportunities for the folks in Warren,’’ said Irving. “And we’re hoping it will be a benefit for both towns.’’

MGM has not pitched its offramp proposal to Warren officials, according to Robert Souza, a Warren selectman, though he said they are willing to listen.

“We have the same concerns anyone would have, and that’s traffic in the community of Warren,’’ he said. “But the board is more than interested to discuss all economic development plans for Warren.’’

Winning approval for an interchange will begin in Brimfield and Warren, said Irving, who expects the support of local officials would carry weight with the state. “And then we will work our way up through the state [Department of Transportation] officials, not asking for anything other than a conversation, just informing them to what we are doing,’’ he said.

“Then we will work our way up to the federal level and from that point, we will start understanding what everyone needs from us in terms of design and the questions we need to answer for approval. But it is a federal, state, and local process.’’

The Federal Highway Administration would not approve an interchange request from a private developer, even a wealthy one willing to pay for the entire project. That request would have to come from state transportation officials, according to the Highway Administration.

MassDOT would require the developers to submit engineering studies, such as traffic analyses, and the developer would be responsible for fixing any safety or traffic flow problems, Cyndi Roy, MassDOT communications director, said in an e-mail. Roy stressed that any new interchange is hypothetical, as the state has received no proposal.

Irving believes the process to design and get approval for the interchange “can probably occur in 12 to 18 months. more likely 18.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.

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