A boost for rail trail expansion in Southampton

By JACQUELYN VOGHEL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2021 5:06 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — The town is a step closer to constructing a long-awaited multi-use path linking the Manhan Rail Trail closer to the Columbia Greenway Trail in Westfield after securing a $100,000 state grant for the project.

The grant will help purchase the defunct rail bed that starts just over the Southampton border at Coleman Road on the Easthampton line. The 3.5 mile stretch of rail bed that the town intends to buy would run to Route 10 near Sheldon’s Ice Cream. Across the street from the southern terminus of the Manhan Rail Trail, the paved path for cyclists and pedestrians currently gives way to a dilapidated rail bed owned by Pioneer Valley Railroad.

The portion of rail bed is “the missing middle between the Easthampton Manhan Trail and the Westfield Columbia Greenway,” said Select Board member Chris Fowles, who is also chairman of the Master Plan Committee and Ad Hoc Grant Committee established to secure funding for the project. “This is the only part that’s not a full trail yet.”

The 3.5-mile expansion would bring the bike path closer to the Columbia Greenway, though several miles would still remain between the two trails.

The project has been discussed in town for at least two decades. In a 2012 special Town Meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly to allow the town to purchase the rail bed in support of the project, which had previously been rejected at a 1996 meeting. The vote directed town officials to negotiate with Pioneer Valley Railroad ownership to buy the tracks for $340,000, contingent on reaching a grant funding goal.

But progress has since been slow, which Fowles said is largely a result of financial restrictions. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation already has close to $6 million in funding set aside for the construction itself, Fowles said, but the town will likely now need to raise around $400,000 first to acquire the rail bed.

The town is currently seeking more grant opportunities, according to Fowles, and also state approval to use Community Preservation Funds towards the project. The state currently does not allow communities to use this funding source to acquire railroad land.

State rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who has supported the town in pursuing the rail trail expansion, said that a legislative fix in the governor’s budget would, if passed, change this regulation so that any municipality can use Community Preservation Act funding towards railroad acquisitions.

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Expanding biking and pedestrian trails in Southampton and throughout the state is “critical,” according to Sabadosa.

“It gives people a real way to commute, to get exercise and to just travel between their communities on bike, by foot, by skateboard,” Sabadosa said. “It’s safe, it gets them off the roadways.

“Northampton is a great example,” she added. “When you have all these rail trails, people use them.”

In addition to partially closing the gap between the two trails, the expansion would also provide scenic views of nearby conservation areas in town and easy access to the Red Rock Plaza, Fowles said.

While nearly a decade has passed since voters originally approved the project, interest in the proposed rail trail remains high: the Southampton Master Plan Committee surveyed residents on issues important to them within the past two years, and completing the rail trail came out on top.

While the planned trail will connect with the Manhan Rail Trail, it will be a separate path with its own name. In the past, the project has been referred to as the Southampton Greenway, though the trail may ultimately have a different name.

The Columbia Greenway Rail Trail runs from Main Street in Westfield to the Southwick town line, spanning about 2.4 miles. Like the Manhan Rail Trail, the path is part of the former New York/New Haven/Hartford Railroad.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Fowles said, “but we’re finally seeing a real first step with some money being committed to this activity, so we’re very encouraged and excited about it.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.]]>