NORTHAMPTON — Construction of a long-planned underpass below the railroad tracks off King Street is under way, a project that will put an end to bikers and pedestrians climbing through a hole in a fence off Woodmont Road to cross the tracks that divide the city’s rail trail network.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is overseeing the $4.4 million project that will connect a section of the Mass Central Rail Trail in Northampton between King Street and Woodmont Road. The trail is currently separated by the Connecticut River Main Line.
“I think it’ll (the trail) be more widely used because it becomes that much more accessible to get from one side of town to the other,” said Carolyn Misch, senior land manager and permits planner in Northampton.
MassDOT selected Northern Construction Service to build a precast concrete underpass, which is projected to be done in October 2017. The construction basically consists of digging a hole and putting in a tunnel, Misch said. A similar tunnel was built where the rail trail crosses under Route 9 in Hadley.
“This has been a goal for a very long time,” said Wayne M. Feiden, Northampton’s director of planning and sustainability. “Because we have this whole network of trails developed by the city on the east side and a whole network of trails on the west built by the state and they were never well linked. This is the missing link.”
While some may benefit from the underpass, others interviewed say it’s too much money to spend.
Retiree Richard Wikander crosses the tracks at the site of the underpass twice a day. He doesn’t have a car and, like many other people, has no better way to get across into town.
“The alternative is a heck of a hike,” he said.
People will appreciate the underpass as long as it is well kept, he said. If no one is diligent about maintaining it and keeping it clear in the winter, then it will not get the use it deserves.
Wikander said that while it will be an attractive place for people to congregate, he doesn’t believe the underpass is a necessary expense.
“As far as I know, in all the generations that people have walked across the tracks, I don’t know that anyone has been injured in any way,” he said.
Another solution, according to Wikander, could have been to level out the tracks and the trails, also known as an at-grade crossing. That would make it easier for bikers and pedestrians to cross.
However, Misch said that a level crossing was simply not an option.
“The rail companies don’t like at-grade crossings. They don’t approve them anymore because they don’t want to be liable for any accidents,” she said.
As for the cost, Misch said that the price has to cover labor and materials, and that the issue with building a tunnel is that it is more expensive than paving a road because it’s infrastructure all around.
An underpass is ultimately the most efficient way to accomplish network connection, she said.
Mike Goodman is another Northampton resident who frequently crosses the railroad tracks.
He, too, said that he doesn’t view the project as money well spent.
“I benefit, it’s good for me, but it just seems like a lot of money for not too many people,” he said.
Goodman said that he finds it hard to imagine a train would go by so fast that someone wouldn’t see it. There aren’t that many bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the tracks, and those who do are capable of not being hit by a train.