NORTH ADAMS — By 2019, the plan for a bike path that would terminate at the Harriman-and-West Airport was news to almost no one.
Except, it turns out, the Federal Aviation Administration.
After weeks of confusion, local officials have learned that the most recent delay in construction of the Williamstown-North Adams bike path is due to the federal agency, which never had been officially informed of or given approval to the project.
"Everyone on the city side, and I believe everyone on the MassDOT side, believed that all the appropriate notices and filings were put forward," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "There may have been some consultation with FAA, but no formal application or certification sign-off. So, when we went with the 25 percent design, the FAA took a look and said, `We have not seen it.'"
Greenman-Pedersen, the project's engineer, did not return a request for comment.
The plan calls for 21/2 miles of trail in Williamstown — it is expected to move forward with its piece of the trail this year — and 1 mile in North Adams. Eventually, the city's aim is to connect the trail to the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Adams, where it stretches south all the way to Lanesborough.
Plans for the path to run parallel to the airport's runway just to its north, terminating on Airport Road, were described in detail at a 2017 public meeting.
In a statement to The Eagle on Wednesday, the FAA explained that it "advised Harriman-and-West Airport officials that they need to conduct an assessment of the part of the proposed pedestrian/bike path that would run on airport property. The assessment would determine if the path would be safe for those using it as well as aircraft taking off or landing on Runway 11-29."
That process will be part of an update to the airport's master plan, which can take 12 to 18 months, according to the FAA — though Bernard said he hopes the agency can approve the bike path sooner.
News of yet another delay irked local officials in April, when the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization amended its fiscal 2019 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), sidelining the bike path from the 2019 construction season into 2020.
Now, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has offered more clarity on the holdup along with the FAA.
It is yet another delay in a project that has been riddled with hurdles.
"We had anticipated sometime in 2018 this project would kick off," Bernard said.
Because the city is not yet prepared to move forward with construction of its section of the trail, the project will be fractured between the two towns.
Williamstown could move forward with construction in 2020 if it secures the required environmental permitting, MassDOT wrote in a May 22 letter to Select Board member Andrew Hogeland.
"Let me assure you that [MassDOT] is as eager as you are to see this project get advertised and under construction," wrote District 1 Highway Director Francisca Heming.
Jason Hoch, the town manager in Williamstown, said that construction of its section of the path should be achievable in 2020 "assuming there are no other surprises in the permitting process."
"We have some hurdles to jump through on the town end, none that are necessarily a problem," Hoch said. "'I'm pretty confident that the timetable for us is realistic."
For the 1 mile of path planned for North Adams, the timeline is less clear.
"Williamstown is ready to go; North Adams is not ready to go," Bernard said. "This is the point at which it makes sense to separate the projects, and proceed with the Williamstown section."
Though he acknowledged that the delay puts the city at a disadvantage, he hopes it can learn from Williamstown's construction process before embarking on its own.
"It will be a pause. Hopefully, it is a pro forma review and there are no significant design, access or alignment issues and once it gets taken up through the master planning process, we'll just move forward," Bernard said.
In its official response to public comments on its proposed transportation project funding plan, the Berkshire MPO noted that all but one of the 87 public comments received on the bike path delay expressed support for moving it forward.
"In response to the current proposed delay, the MPO requested that MassDOT and the entire project team maintain a high level of diligence in keeping the Williamstown section of the project on schedule and establish it as a priority to ensure that advertising is accomplished by the end of 2019 and in no event should the project be delayed so as to lose the 2020 construction season," the response states.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.