Ashuwillticook Rail Trail expansion project

A new section of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail is under construction, extending the trail from Lanesborough to Crane Avenue in Pittsfield. In North County, work continues to extend biking and walking trails to the Vermont border.

PITTSFIELD — A long quest to provide a north-south recreational trail through all of Berkshire County is inching its way forward. A new $1.4 million segment will connect the popular trail to one of Pittsfield’s busiest roads.

Meantime, work continues to bring the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail more than a mile-and-a-half south from the Berkshire Mall to Crane Avenue in Pittsfield. The next step, outlined in a hearing Monday, will use a defunct rail bed to cross under Dalton Avenue, run behind a commercial plaza on Merrill Road, then cross that busy route on a newly designed crosswalk.

“Efforts have been progressing at both the north and south ends,” James McGrath, manager of Pittsfield’s Park, Open Space and Natural Resource Program, said at the online hearing hosted by the state Department of Transportation. “The vision is simply a Berkshire bike path traveling through the county.”

Construction of this newest phase is scheduled to start in 2024 but could accelerate if money is available sooner, according to Nick Lapointe, a civil engineer with Fuss & O’Neill, the city’s design consultant.

“This is a really unique chance to bring the trail into downtown,” Lapointe said. “That’s a big deal. The public might not even be aware that this project is going on.”

It’s big, he says, because the trail system finally will reach the county’s main population center, bringing a recreational lure closer to people’s doorsteps.

The federal government covers four-fifths of the cost. The state pays the rest, officials say.

When this link is done, people traveling along Dalton Avenue will see a small trail spur that will connect a sidewalk on that street to the trail, just north of where it will pass beneath an elevated section of the road near Tractor Supply Co.

This illustration shows the route of a proposed 0.4-mile section of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. The extension would run from Crane Avenue t…

From there, the trail will follow a straight line for just under a half-mile atop an abandoned Housatonic Railroad bed that runs north-south between the plaza that contains Dick’s Sporting Goods and an open area to the west that reaches over to Unkamet Brook. The paved path will be 10 feet wide, matching other segments, with 2-foot stone shoulders on both sides.

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Today, the old rail bed is a tangle of overgrown weeds and remnants of its former use, including derelict railroad cabinets. The zone is littered with environmentally hazardous debris, including old rail ties, that will be removed.

As it passes behind the commercial plaza, another spur will make it easy for travelers to detour to local businesses, Lapointe said.

While the project has access to the old rail bed, it will need to obtain easements and rights of way for some of its features. Along with the route itself, the extension will create new parking lots, including one at Crane Avenue and another, with 11 spaces, at Merrill Road.

Lapointe said existing parking lots along the Ashuwillticook often fill up.

The trail’s intersection at Merrill also will bring a new kind of overhead traffic signal, designed to improve safe travel by cyclists and pedestrians. The “HAWK” system, as it’s known, uses flashing yellow and flashing red lights to safeguard people crossing a busy urban route while holding traffic back only when people are in a crosswalk zone.

That part of Merrill has 18,000 vehicles pass daily.

From Merrill Road, future work not yet outlined will create a trail that runs southwest along that artery to East Street, then further on into downtown.

Designs for the newest trail segment will be complete by next spring, Lapointe said. Construction would start two years after that, as the project waits for its share of funding.

Work to bring the trail south as far as Crane Avenue is expected to wrap up in about a year, McGrath said.

In North County, work continues to extend biking and walking trails to the Vermont border.

This year, people associated with the Tourists hotel project and the Hoosic River Watershed Association outlined plans for a new segment connecting Williamstown to downtown North Adams. Another project would extend existing trails into Bennington, Vt. That work, north from Williamstown, is expected to render a path ready for public use by the middle of 2023.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and CommonWealth Magazine.