By Chris Maza
BOSTON – Representatives from Hampden and Longmeadow were among those who pleaded their cases for designation as surrounding communities by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission at a public hearing at Hynes Convention Center on Jan. 28.
MGM opposed both towns’ petitions, stating that neither would experience significant negative impacts from a casino development located in downtown Springfield.
Hampden Board of Selectmen Chair John Flynn and Selectman Vincent Villamaino told the commission was not looking for a set amount of mitigation funding, but rather to have a seat at the table that they said was not available to them.
“We’re fairly late to this process and we have had no interaction with MGM with regards to the collection of information or impact data,” Flynn told the commission.
He explained that early in the casino process, Hampden had focused on the potential impacts of a casino in Palmer, but when the Mohegan Sun project was struck down by a referendum vote last year, the emphasis shifted to MGM’s Springfield proposal and Hampden has been “waiting for bilateral communication.”
“There has never been an opportunity extended to us to provide justification for our application [for surrounding community status],” he said.
Flynn and Villamaino asserted that with MGM projecting approximately 30 percent of its revenue coming from Connecticut, Hampden could face significant impacts resulting from traffic cutting through the town, specifically via Allen Street as it approaches Springfield and Sumner Avenue.
“We’re looking for the opportunity to explore this because we believe some mitigation is needed,” he said. “This is a direct route to the Connecticut line and MGM has said one-third of their business will come from Connecticut. We do get a lot of traffic from Connecticut and environmentally, [the extra vehicles] may do damage to our roads.
“MGM’s rebuttal contains what is essentially a recap of our town’s Wikipedia entry and while it is a wonderful town, it is a town that is changing and growing,” he continued. “This will increase traffic and there is no way you could not anticipate that.”
Seth Stratton, an attorney from Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, the local legal representative for MGM, stated that Hampden was not proximate enough to warrant surrounding community status and there was no primary route to downtown Springfield from the town. He rejected the idea that Hampden would be a major cut through, pointing out, “Hampden holds the distinction of being one of the only towns with no traffic lights,” and said any impact would be negligible.
Kevin Dandrade, representing TEC Engineering, MGM’s traffic consultant, supported Stratton’s assertions by stating that Hampden possesses no state numbered routs, has a very low residential density, and Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s independent consultant, did not identify any significant impact to Hampden.
“Some of the routes from Somers and Stafford [Conn.] are gravel roads,” he said.
In rebuttal, Flynn said the town had data it could have offered to the studies that may have altered their outcome had they been given the opportunity.
When asked by the commission if MGM had offered Hampden a “look back” agreement, MGM Springfield President and COO Michael Mathis said it had been discussed internally, but the company ultimately decided against it.
“The challenge we had was that we had built a coalition [of potential surrounding communities],” he said. “In fairness to the representations we made to those communities, we felt it would be inequitable to offer Hampden a look back.”
Longmeadow also argued that it would be significantly impacted by increased traffic on local roads and that it was the only community abutting the host site of Springfield that was not designated a surrounding community.
Longmeadow’s special counsel, Brandon Moss of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane, told the commission that while the town has tried to work with MGM, it had failed to reach an agreement, “but that shouldn’t have prevented the town’s designation as a surrounding community.”
Similar to Hampden, Moss argued that MGM’s own assertion was that a significant portion of its patrons would come from the south, and therefore through Longmeadow.
He pointed out that in previous statements Mathis said the proposed facility would be closer to Connecticut than some parts of Massachusetts and MGM President Bill Hornbuckle said, “We are ideally positioned to go right into Hartford, and attack.”
“To attack those patrons, they have to go through Longmeadow,” Moss said.
Moss continued by saying that Longmeadow was found to be in danger of significant and adverse impacts resulting from the MGM project in three separate engineering reports – GPI’s peer review of MGM’s traffic study; a study by Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was hire by the town; and a third by the town engineer.
GPI’s report stated that during peak hours, an additional 286 cars would be on Interstate 91 and an additional 53 vehicles would be on Longmeadow’s local roads.
He attacked MGM for criticizing GPI’s study in its rebuttal against Longmeadow, while utilizing it to its advantage in its argument against Hampden.
“MGM is attacking the GPI report, but a few minutes ago they conveniently used it to show why a town did not deserve designation,” he said. “MGM can’t have it both ways.”
Moss also showed the commission a photo of a Jan. 2 accident that shut down I-91 and caused significant backups on Route 5 in Longmeadow.
“Those cars in the photo are moving as quickly as they were moving in real life,” he said.
Moss added that the town is looking for up-front money because Proposition 2 ½ limits how much the town can raise to absorb costs incurred by the impacts of the casino.
Those costs, in addition to road maintenance, would include increases to public safety and zoning enforcement budgets, among others. For example, Moss said, in addition to responding to collisions and emergencies on local roads, Longmeadow public safety departments respond to emergencies on I-91.
He said the town had yet to file a petition for involuntary disbursement because he wanted to keep the commission’s focus on the town’s surrounding community petition and the town still hoped to negotiate in good faith with MGM.
Stratton acknowledged that negotiations with Longmeadow has been the most challenging, but credited Longmeadow Town Manager Stephen Crane and Select Board Chair Marie Angelides for maintaining a productive and collegial dialogue. However, he argued that the town is trying to get funding to remediate problems that are already present.
“Traffic, traffic, traffic is their argument,” he said. “I’m a resident of Longmeadow and traffic has been an issue for a long time. Those are pre-existing issues. What Longmeadow is looking for MGM to do is pay for issues they have long had.
“They have studies and reports, but they lack the causal link between the perceived impacts and MGM operations,” he added.
Dandrade said that while Moss argued that the Longmeadow curve on I-91 was a bottleneck that would cause backups onto Route 5, neither interchange of Route 5 and I-91 in proximity of Longmeadow are within the town’s borders.
He added that the burden to maintain I-91 rests with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Dandrade continued by displaying a slide that showed the results of a travel time study conducted on Jan. 17, the Friday prior to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, which he called one of the busiest skiing days of the year.
According to the results, he said, even when I-91 was backed up through the Connecticut interchange with Route 5, drive times were still longer through Longmeadow than on the freeway, suggesting it was not a viable cut through.
He added that GPI’s figures for percentage of traffic increase on Longmeadow roads were within 0.5 percent of MGM’s figures, which validated its belief.
“There will be an insignificant level of traffic. The average additional delay will be lass than two seconds after the retiming of traffic lights,” he said.
GPI’s study, he added, showed no increase in traffic collisions on I-91 during increased travel for the Big E, which averages a significantly higher car volume than the casino would.
“In fact, there was a drop,” Dandrade said of collision rates, adding that Longmeadow’s rates on Route 5 were below average as well.
Stratton also said that surrounding community agreements MGM has reached with other towns should not be used to penalize the company.
“Most if not all of the communities we have reached agreements with would not have been designated by this commission,” he said.
The Gaming Commission will deliberate on the petitions and according to its published timeline will have a decision by Feb. 6. At that time, if designated surrounding communities, the towns would have 30 days to negotiate and agreement with MGM.