North county bike path plan pushed back another year

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NORTH ADAMS — Supporters of the proposed bike path connecting North Adams and Williamstown are lamenting another construction delay and looking for answers.

After years of planning, local officials want clarity on why the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has put the brakes on the project and when it will finally be built.

"The trail project between Williamstown and North Adams has been reprogrammed to federal Fiscal Year 2020 to allow for additional environmental review," a MassDOT spokesperson said in an email to The Eagle.

When asked for further detail, spokesman Maxwell Huber stated, "The additional review process is to ensure that the project adheres to the Federal Aviation Administration guidelines since a portion of the trail is adjacent to an airport."

In an April amendment to its fiscal 2019 Transportation Improvement Plan, the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization shifted the project from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2020. The planning organization is a board that includes representatives from MassDOT, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority, and municipal officials from across the county. Its work is aided by staff members of the regional commission.

"I think the key thing is to probably get a fuller understanding of the delay [by DOT]," said Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

If DOT isn't ready to put the project out to bid in fiscal 2019, which ends Sept. 30, the project need not be in the fiscal 2019 Transportation Improvement Plan, he confirmed.

The bike path would connect Syndicate Road in Williamstown to the Harriman and West Airport in North Adams. Eventually, the goal is to connect to the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail and create more than 20 miles of bike path connecting Lanesborough to Williamstown through Cheshire, Adams and North Adams.

The Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization is tasked with establishing a Transportation Improvement Plan that lays out how transportation project funding will be prioritized for each fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

Andy Hogeland, an alternate representative on the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization and member of the Williamstown Select Board, said the change in schedule for the pedestrian and bike path came from MassDOT.

"We'd like to shorten the delay as much as possible," Hogeland said. "But it's not clear whether the delay is going to be significant enough to delay construction, but we'll pushing for construction in 2020."

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The path's backers in the Northern Berkshires sent out emails last week urging residents to file a comment with the the planning organization before the public comment period on the proposed transportation plan ended Wednesday.

"The valuable thing about the comments, again, is to reiterate to everybody what a priority project this is for both communities," said Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch.

Matuszko said the comments show "real interest" from the communities in getting the project done.

"It seems appropriate, and we will bring those comments forward. I don't know the exact forum, [but] we certainly will give a collective report about that," Matuszko said.

The bike path's construction was first placed in the transportation plan in fiscal 2018. The project was then pushed into 2019, and the Metropolitan Planning Organization received about 25 comments urging the agency fund the project in late 2018 or early 2019.

Now, more than halfway into fiscal 2019, the project looks to be heading into the fiscal 2020 plan.

Though everyone would have liked to have seen it built in 2017, Hoch noted that, once complete, Williamstown and North Adams will be the beneficiary of outside investment.

"The reality is it will happen. It's just the complexity of the project and the fact that by and large both communities are spending someone else's money, means there is a limit to how aggressively the timetables work," Hoch said.

To Amanda Chilson, Mass in Motion coordinator at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, the proposed path offers improved bicycle and pedestrian connectivity between Williamstown and North Adams, a potential driver of economic growth and beneficial to public health.

"There's been so much momentum and movement behind it, to stall it, we're going to lose some of that momentum," Chilson said.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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