Marc Warner: Planned $2.25 million rail underpass in Northampton wastes public money

Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — About 10 years ago, nationwide attention turned toward a planned bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island in Alaska. To the construction companies that would build it, and the Alaska congressmen who pushed for federal funding, the bridge seemed like a great idea.

To pretty much everyone else, however, the bridge was a $315 million extravagance for an essentially negligible amount of traffic. The outrage went viral, and the project died under the weight of national ridicule as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Now, there’s a plan for Northampton that may be our “Bridge to Nowhere.” It’s not at a price tag that would gain national attention, and it’s not a bridge, but a tunnel.

It shares, however, the characteristic of excessive cost for a very dubious need.

The project is the bicycle underpass planned for construction in the next month or so by the railroad track off King Street behind the Taco Bell. Bicyclists coming along the path from downtown or crossing King Street from the Northampton Bike Path now carry their bikes over these tracks before continuing along the Norwottuck Rail Trail to Damon Road and the pedestrian bridge over the Connecticut.

The planned underpass would allow riders to stay on their bikes and off the tracks. The cost is $2.25 million.

Say what?

I expressed my sticker shock to Tim Doherty, project manager at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, when he described the bike path and the broader rail improvements at a recent meeting in Northampton. He insists that this is the going rate for these types of projects, but I still don’t get it. How can a 15-by-8-foot concrete box under a 90-foot rail right-of-way have no land acquisition costs yet be more than seven times the price of an average Northampton home?

More importantly, it has led me to wonder why anyone would specify a bicycle underpass for this site in the first place. According to Doherty, “the underpass is the only 100 percent effective way of preventing people from crossing the tracks.”

This eliminates the risk that someone could get hit by a train, and thus justifies the investment.

That is not a reasonable response. Yes, safety matters, but a safety concern does not justify an open checkbook to eliminate any theoretical risk. We assume that people will bike or walk with a suitable degree of caution, and we don’t put underpasses at every street corner — even busy ones.

King Street is used by 19,364 cars and trucks per day, and Damon Road’s traffic count is 15,200. Yet both are equipped with at-grade bike path crossings. The rail line, in contrast, will have a maximum of 20 trains per day under the most generous future rail scenario. Can this really only be safe with a $2.25 million underpass?

A far cheaper at-grade crossing would be more appropriate for this site. Even with crossing gates, rumble strips, filler around the tracks, and a bend in the path requiring bicyclists to stop, the cost would still be a small fraction of the current plan. It would also avoid the maintenance costs of cleaning graffiti off the tunnel walls, urine off the tunnel floor, or of sending in a guy with scuba gear to fix the pump when the underpass floods after a storm like we saw Wednesday.

The at-grade crossing does not realistically compromise safety or cycling convenience. It may require the state to renegotiate its deal with the Federal Railroad Administration, but this would likely happen anyway with the state’s separately planned purchase of the full rail corridor, and it offers the chance to shift the funds toward a project of more reasonable value.

And if it means we lose the earmark?

Well, then we make our own at-grade improvement and we strike a blow against unnecessary and wasteful public spending.

We hold our heads high that we did not embrace our own Bridge to Nowhere.

Marc Warner is a transportation planning consultant and a member of Northampton’s Passenger Rail Advisory Committee.