State ditches bike trail plans connecting Hatfield, Northampton

A bicyclist rides across the Connecticut River on the Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail.

A bicyclist rides across the Connecticut River on the Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-01-2024 1:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A 1¼-mile-long shared-use path to bring a bicycle and pedestrian connection from Damon Road in Northampton to Elm Court in Hatfield is on indefinite hold because of safety concerns and prohibitive costs.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have informed local officials in both communities that they won’t sign off on a project that, due to the proximity to railroad tracks, doesn’t meet safety standards and would also be too expensive and complicated to construct.

MassDOT officials said they couldn’t move the Connecticut River Greenway Trail project past the 10% design, or concept, stage, in determining its feasibility, despite the project having support from both Hatfield Town Meeting and the Northampton Office of Planning and Sustainability as a way to extend the regional rail trail system.

“It’s just not a viable project, I think MassDOT was very clear about that,” Hatfield Select Board Chairwoman Diana Szynal said at this week’s board meeting, which came after a recent Zoom call on the status of the project.

Carolyn Misch, director of the Northampton Office of Planning and Sustainability, confirmed in an email that MassDOT input came after the city paid to get the project to the feasibility stage, which would have made it eligible as a Transportation Improvement Project and for eventual funding from the state. But the project couldn’t meet specific design standards, including a mandated 10-foot width, as the path runs between the railroad tracks and the Connecticut River, and parallel to Interstate 91.

“Because of the location between the existing rail line and the river, there are areas of the path alignment that would bring it too close to the rail line to meet MassDOT rail standards for separation from an active rail corridor,” Misch wrote. “In order to move the path away from the railroad, there were areas where the path would need to be cantilevered over steep slopes. MassDOT indicated that it would be too expensive and that they do not build sections of cantilevered paths, which further diminished the project’s ability to be funded as a shared use path.”

The idea of the rail trail connection was first pitched by Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s former director of Planning and Sustainability, around 2008. Under the proposal, the path would begin at River Run Condominiums to the south and then, staying at least 50 to 60 feet from the railroad tracks, would remain exclusively on Northampton land until the final 750 feet in Hatfield, ending at the existing Department of Public Works yard.

When state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, learned about MassDOT’s concerns, she helped facilitate a meeting between Northampton, Hatfield and MassDOT officials, along with the legislative delegation, to discuss the project. One unforeseen factor, she said, was Amtrak’s expansion of the Valley Flyer along the tracks.

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“Unfortunately, it appears the original design cannot move forward,” Sabadosa said. “As we prepare to run more trains along the Knowledge Corridor, different safety precautions are needed along the tracks that make a Greenway unfeasible, and extremely expensive, at this time.”

Szynal explained that state officials didn’t leave leave a lot of doors open for a successful project because of the challenges related to construction, such as getting the equipment on site to build the bike path, and additional challenges posed by the environmental constraints, on top of the topography and slopes.

With overlooks of the Connecticut River and farmland in Hatfield and Hadley, the siting has been considered ideal and attractive for the rail trail.

Richard Abbott, who chairs the Hatfield Open Space Committee, said he appreciates that couple of “pinch points” where a safety zone of at least 25 feet from the passing trains can’t be met was a problem.

“It’s quite a bummer that the project is not viable at this time,” Abbott said.

Some work has already been done on establishing the new path, including commitment to a conservation restriction being placed on 11.58 acres of Northampton-owned land being donated to Hatffield and a 750-foot easement across Hatfield’s DPW yard being offered. Other details, though, had not yet been worked out, such as whether parking would be provided in Hatfield.

Sabadosa said she has some confidence that something will happen, as the communities are committed to seeing if there are other ways to use the land and working with MassDOT to see what other recreational uses might be possible along that stretch.

Misch agreed with that, even if the shared-use path doesn’t happen.

“We are hopeful that in the future there may be a way to create access to this section of the Connecticut River for both communities, though it may not be with a dedicated shared-use path funded by MassDOT,” Misch said.