Senate OKs bond bill with millions for road, rail improvements; local officials propose projects for funding

Friday, June 20, 2014
The state Senate Thursday approved a five-year, $12.7 billion transportation bond bill that includes money for commuter rail service in the Pioneer Valley, $6.53 million for seven projects in Northampton and up to $300 million a year for Chapter 90 road projects in cities and towns.

The bill, which Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to sign, also provides $5.6 million for the design and reconstruction of Haydenville Road and Mountain Street in Whately and Williamsburg and $900,000 for the reconstruction of Route 112 in Cummington.

The largest single amount, $30 million, is for improvements and expansion of the so-called Knowledge Corridor Rail line providing service between Springfield, Northampton and Greenfield. That includes buying new locomotives and rehabilitating decommissioned locomotives and coaches owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

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There is also $25 million for freight rail projects around the state.

The inclusion of $55 million for rail improvements, which grew out of a 2009 New England Rail Summit that Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, helped organize, “is driven by the economic development and job growth potential of freight and passenger rail, and also by environmental concerns,” Rosenberg said. He described its approval “a significant step in the right direction.”

Wayne Feiden, director of the Northampton’s Office of Planning and Sustainability, welcomed news of possible funding for several key projects in the city.

“It means it will be much more likely that at least some of these important projects will get funding,” Feiden said.

Municipal officials caution that while it’s important to get projects included in the transportation bond bill, many of the projects don’t get included in the final version the governor approves.

The Northampton projects included in the bond bill include $2.4 million to reconstruct King Street for the first time in 25 years. The project has yet to be designed, so it’s unclear if all or a portion of the street would see improvements, Feiden said.

Another $1.5 million in funding would go toward revamping a congested downtown intersection by the Academy of Music where New South, Main, Elm and State streets converge. Plans call for converting the intersection into a smaller, more traditional design, making several improvements along New South and Elm streets, and installing new traffic islands designed to allow vehicles to make right turns on red lights.

“From an economic development standpoint, this is one of the most important projects on the list,” Feiden said.

Other Northampton projects include:

∎ $1.6 million for the emergency repair of the crumbling River Road retaining wall;

∎ $500,000 for engineering and repairs to the historic Clement Street Bridge over the Mill River. The money would enable the city to fix the structure and keep it one lane as the neighborhood wants, Feiden said.

∎ $355,000 for the rehabilitation of the city’s original 30-year-old rail trail that runs about 3 miles from State Street to Bridge Road.

∎ $100,000 for the design of safety improvements at the intersection of Finn and North streets.

∎ $75,000 for safety improvements at a dangerous intersection of Ryan and Florence roads in Ward 6.

Meanwhile, funding to rebuild the road connecting Whately and Williamsburg has been on a wish list for some time, and town officials are thankful the Legislature realized the need to fix it.

“Parts of it are quite rutted and each town’s highway department has done a lot of work to patch it together over the years,” said Paul Dunphy, clerk of the Williamsburg Board of Selectmen. “It’s definitely great news for both towns and Northampton’s Water Department.”

The portion of the road in Williamsburg is called Mountain Street and stretches from the center of Haydenville, past the Mountain Street Reservoir that provides drinking water for Northampton, to the Whately town line. From there, the name of the road changes to Haydenville Road and goes to the center of Whately.

Dunphy said it’s unclear if the project would include the entire 6 miles from the center of Haydenville to the center of Whately. Work would not begin until 2015 or 2016, he said.

Other regional projects included in the bond bill include $900,000 for the reconstruction of Route 112 in Cummington; $350,000 for the relining and repair of a culvert on Northwest Road in Westhampton; and $30,000 for a feasibility study of a Mill River Greenway in Williamsburg.

Although both House and Senate versions provide for $1.5 billion over five years in Chapter 90 road projects for communities, Patrick in the past has refused to authorize more than $200 million for the program, which many smaller towns rely on to pay for most of their highway projects.

“Clearly, municipal leaders have succeeded in convincing representatives and senators of the need to increase Chapter 90 funding to $300 million a year, and that is a significant victory,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Winning release of the full $300 million will continue to be a top priority for the MMA, and we will not cease until all of the funds flow directly to cities and towns.”