Easthampton wins state grant to build safer route from rail trail to school

  • Tom Werbiskis of Easthampton passes the Easthampton/Southampton town line marker on the Manhan Rail Trail during a late afternoon walk on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2022 5:50:20 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The city is closer to creating a more accessible and safe route connecting the Manhan Rail Trail and Park Street to the city’s schools after securing a nearly $1.9 million state grant.

Proposed improvements along the route include constructing a 400-foot accessible multi-use path connection from the rail trail to Park Street and a 3,600-foot, 8-foot-wide side path along Park Street to the entrance of the existing White Brook Middle and future Mountain View School.

The project proposal also includes the installation of handicapped-accessible ramps and crosswalks at four street crossings, new ramps at 19 driveways, and the narrowing of 1,300 feet of Park Street through new pavement markings that will aid in traffic calming.

“When this project is done, those students that live along that route will be able to get to the new school very safely,” said Mayor Nicole LaChapelle.

The overall estimated project cost, including design and construction, from Florence-based architectural firm Dodson & Flinker, is $1,860,000. The project includes approximately $90,000 for acquisition of a portion of 17 Ward Ave. and $75,000 for easements, according to the firm’s feasibility study.

Easthampton requested funding through the Massachusetts Safe Routes to School 2021-2022 Infrastructure Funding program and was awarded the full amount of Dodson & Flinker’s estimate, according to state Department of Transportation Spokesperson Judith Riley, who noted that the $1.86 million was a preliminary estimate and the project cost may change based on the development of the project’s design. The city is one of nine schools and partner municipalities that have been awarded funds through the program.

The Safe Routes to School program provides funding for projects between $300,000 and about $1.5 million within a two-mile radius of public elementary and middle schools that will improve safety and increase the number of children walking and biking to school.

The most recent iteration of the Safe Routes to School program began in 2019, and has awarded approximately $35 million in funding for 30 infrastructure projects to date. Geographic location and social equity are taken into consideration in awarding the grants.

“MassDOT is pleased to provide these awards to schools and communities which will facilitate key infrastructure improvements to help ensure children and teenagers have access to safe routes to schools across the Commonwealth,” said MassDOT Transportation Secretary and CEO Jamey Tesler. “We were very pleased to see such a diverse and competitive group of submissions for this round of program grants and hope that other Safe Routes to School partners will be encouraged to apply in the future.”

Since 2018, Easthampton has initiated a number of Safe Routes to School events. Through the work of the School Committee, the city has held three Walk, Bike, and Roll to school days. The Planning and Police departments also held the first Bike Rodeo in conjunction with the Safe Routes to School program and MassBike last fall.

Most recently, Mountain View middle school students and teachers walked to school with staff and officers from the city’s Police Department along the project path via the Rail Trail and Park Street.

The city’s efforts in this competitive project solicitation process have been underway since 2019, according to City Planner Jeff Bagg.

That year, the city commissioned the Conway School of Landscape Design to gather public input and envision connections to the new Mountain View school, Nonotuck Park, neighborhoods and the Manhan Rail Trail. The report “lays the conceptual groundwork for a multi-use path system which can be further developed into site-specific designs for each segment,” according to the city’s grant application to the state. The project included a community survey and two community meetings confirming community support for enhancing bicycle and pedestrian connectivity.

Last year, Easthampton updated its Open Space and Recreation Plan, which included postcard mailings to all 9,000 households in Easthampton soliciting responses for a community survey that included questions about enhanced access to the new school. Connecting the rail trail to the new school — as well as Nonotuck Park and neighborhoods — was identified as one of the top three goals in the open space plan.

Construction is not anticipated to begin until 2024, Bagg said, and the route will be discussed at two public meetings before work begins.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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