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Dangerous crossing: With Norwottuck rail trail bridge closed, more commuting bikers will travel Route 9 from Northampton to Hadley

  • Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday the bridge will be closed for a renovation project scheduled to be completed in April 2014. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday the bridge will be closed for a renovation project scheduled to be completed in April 2014.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Just like traffic on the adjacent Coolidge Bridge, the prominent flow of morning commuters on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River is eastward toward Hadley, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Just like traffic on the adjacent Coolidge Bridge, the prominent flow of morning commuters on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River is eastward toward Hadley, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • A runner on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge looks toward the Coolidge Bridge over the Connecticut River during an eastward jog from Northampton Tuesday morning. On Monday the rail trail bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months during a renovation of the bridge.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A runner on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge looks toward the Coolidge Bridge over the Connecticut River during an eastward jog from Northampton Tuesday morning. On Monday the rail trail bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months during a renovation of the bridge.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • A commuter heads east from Northampton on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River Tuesday morning. On Monday the bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months for a rehabilitation of the bridge. Commuters will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, right.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    A commuter heads east from Northampton on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River Tuesday morning. On Monday the bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months for a rehabilitation of the bridge. Commuters will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, right.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday he will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, as the rail trail bridge will be closed until April for a renovation project.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday he will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, as the rail trail bridge will be closed until April for a renovation project.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.<br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.

    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday the bridge will be closed for a renovation project scheduled to be completed in April 2014. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Just like traffic on the adjacent Coolidge Bridge, the prominent flow of morning commuters on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River is eastward toward Hadley, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • A runner on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge looks toward the Coolidge Bridge over the Connecticut River during an eastward jog from Northampton Tuesday morning. On Monday the rail trail bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months during a renovation of the bridge.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • A commuter heads east from Northampton on the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River Tuesday morning. On Monday the bridge and the adjacent Elwell Recreation Area are slated to close for seven months for a rehabilitation of the bridge. Commuters will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, right.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Michael Sullivan of Northampton is a regular user of the Norwottuck Rail Trail bridge over the Connecticut River on his commute to and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Monday he will have to use the Coolidge Bridge, seen in background, as the rail trail bridge will be closed until April for a renovation project.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Norwottuck Rail Trail Reconstruction Project Updates are posted in the Elwell Recreation Area in Northampton at the western terminus of the trail which will be closed for seven months starting Monday.<br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Starting Monday, he and many other bike commuters will be forced to take a very different route — one that puts them bumper to bumper in the highly traveled Route 9 corridor with motorists.

State officials say the rail trail bridge over the Connecticut River and the nearby Damon Road parking lot will be shut down for about seven months, an extended closure that will translate into a heavier blend of bicyclists and motorists on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge — and along sections of Route 9 in Hadley and Amherst.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation began an approximately $4 million, 8.5-mile trail reconstruction between the Elwell Recreation Area on Damon Road in Northampton and Station Road in Amherst this summer. The project includes redecking and repairing the rail trail bridge over the river under a separate contract.

“I don’t bicycle on the roads very much, but obviously, I’m going to have to,” said Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts in the department of mathematics and statistics. “This is going to be kind of new to me. I just hope that drivers will be aware that there will be more bicyclists using the bridge.”

For Sullivan and other cyclists, the bridge closure will have its biggest impact in the fall because fewer riders commute in the winter months. Nevertheless, the consensus among area bicyclists is that motorists should expect to see a significant increase in the number of bicyclists riding or walking their bikes over the Coolidge bridge and along Route 9 for the duration of the bridge project.

“There’s a lot of us,” said Sullivan, who these days is trying to figure out the best — and safest — way to ride to work, which includes determining how best to position his bicycle on the road.

James D. Lowenthal, president of MassBike’s Pioneer Valley chapter, and Easthampton bicyclist Tim Cary, a MassBike board member, said they don’t expect experienced cyclists to have too many issues traversing the bridge from Damon Road and the Route 9 corridor.

But they do worry about less-experienced cyclists.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of confusion,” said Cary, who commutes regularly to his information technology job at Amherst College from Easthampton. “I think a lot of people just aren’t going to ride their bikes. I think the bridge is scary for people who don’t ride in traffic.”

Others cyclists, who have experienced harassment from motorists swerving toward them and sometimes honking their horns, expect problems.

“God forbid someone is breathing their air and slowing them down,” said Leila Everett, an employee at Northampton Bicycle who leads tours with the Northampton Cycling Club. “I think something bad’s going to happen.”

In Everett’s view, there are certain riders who should be on the rail trail and not in traffic because of their lack of experience riding in high-speed traffic areas. “Some people are going to get honked at and land in a heap,” she said. “People need to take a deep breath and realize it’s not all about them and chill out.”

Trail section opening

While the rail trail bridge over the Connecticut River is slated for long-term closure, the 1.5-mile section of trail from Cross Path Road near the bridge in Hadley to East Street is scheduled to reopen in mid-October, according to DCR. The length of trail was being paved last week.

Some bicyclists who travel over the Coolidge bridge will look to get onto the newly refurbished section of trail from Cross Path Road. But there is no easy way to take a left over the bridge in Hadley to that area, and others are likely to travel down Route 9 to Bay Road, cross four-lanes of traffic, and double back to Cross Path Road before getting on the trail.

Like other cyclists interviewed, Neil McClung, also an employee of Northampton Bicycle, said areas of Route 9 where the shoulder is narrow will be more challenging for some cyclists to negotiate than the bridge, which has a wider shoulder.

“Once you get over the Coolidge Bridge, there’s not a convenient place to take a left,” McClung said. “On the bridge itself, there seems to be a little more room for everybody.

“Route 9 is not a great place to be for bikes unless you have to be there,” he added.

Detours and warnings

Although the Cross Path Road-to-East Street section of the Norwottuck Rail Trail is slated to open in mid-October, the trail from East Street to South Maple Street will close around the same time, forcing those using the trail to detour.

Cary and MassBike have designed a detour map to aid bicyclists commuting back and forth over the river while the rail trail bridge and other sections of trail are closed in the coming months. The map can be found on the town of Amherst website.

In addition, DCR plans to place an electronic sign near the Calvin Coolidge Bridge alerting motorists that more rail trail users, including bicyclists, will be traveling over the bridge and in traffic, said Paul Jahnige, director of DCR’s Greenways and Trails Program.

“Closing the parking lot and bridge will be a little more challenging for some people,” Jahnige said.

He said the contractor has six months to complete the rail trail bridge redecking and repairs and that the entire rail trail reconstruction project is making good progress.

“It seems to be going well,” Jahnige said. “The work is moving along pretty much as anticipated.”

Many area bicyclists say it will be important for bike riders and motorists to pay even more attention to each other around the Route 9 corridor in the coming months and share the roads safely.

Recent court ruling

An August decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman in the case of Easthampton bicyclist Eli Damon’s 2011 lawsuit against the Hadley Police Department examined bicyclists’ rights to the road. Police had arrested Damon for riding his bike in the middle of the right travel lanes of Route 9 in much the same way automobiles travel. They had also confiscated his bicycle and a small camera attached to his helmet at the time.

After analyzing the state’s traffic laws, Neiman ruled that a bicyclist must ride to the right of traffic and let faster-moving motorists pass “when it is safe to do so under the circumstances.” The ruling sparked a range of reactions from motorists and cyclists and raised questions about what constitutes safe road conditions.

“I think it was a very careful, reasoned decision,” said Lowenthal. “It was very nuanced, and I thought it was a balanced viewpoint.”

Carey called the decision, “a little bit of a victory” for bicyclists.

“It acknowledged the fact that cyclists share the road,” Cary said. “We do not have to move over if it’s not safe.”

Lowenthal, a Smith College astronomy professor, said it is critical for bicyclists to ride with and not against traffic and be visible. Riding with traffic may be uncomfortable at first for some, he said. but bicycles are considered vehicles in the eyes of the law and it’s a safer way to ride.

“No driver wants to hit a cyclist,” Lowenthal said. “Most bike crashes happen because a motorist didn’t see the cyclist.”

“Picking exactly where to ride is sort of a key to safe cycling, where to position yourself in the roadway,” he added. “There are a lot of variables and many judgments have to be made.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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