Southampton secures $300K to design 3.5-mile rail trail extension

  • A woman reaches the southern end of the Manhan Rail Trail at Coleman Road in Southampton on a walk on Monday morning, April 5, 2021. The abandoned rail bed of the former New Haven and Northampton Canal Line continues south toward Westfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/24/2022 8:05:34 PM
Modified: 7/24/2022 8:02:32 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — A 3.5-mile railroad corridor that has been inactive for more than 30 years is one step closer to seeing some movement along its rails.

The town has secured a $300,000 MassTrails grant that enables it to begin the design, engineering and permitting process for a new rail trail on that corridor, said Town Administrator Ed Gibson.

“This is an exciting next step in our Greenway Bicycle/Pedestrian Path which will connect to the Easthampton (Manhan) Trail and get us closer to connecting to the rail trail in Westfield as well,” said Gibson.

On June 28, Gibson and Select Board Chairperson Chris Fowles attended a ceremony in Milton recognizing the announcement. Southampton was one of more than 80 trail improvement projects that received funding through this program.

The rail line, which was originally completed in 1863, connected New Haven to Northampton and other cities in New England. The Pioneer Valley Railroad Company has not used the line since the early 1990s.

The proposed rail trail will eventually extend from Coleman Road to College Highway. It follows a path identified in the state Bicycle Transportation Plan, which was prepared in September 2008.

“This funding will enable the town to complete the design process for a missing portion of the New Haven Northampton Canal Greenway and will improve the regional trail network linking Easthampton’s Manhan Trail and Westfield’s Columbia Greenway,” said Fowles. “When the unused railroad line is converted to a shared-use, ADA-compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act) trail, it will provide recreational opportunities for surrounding communities and will be a critical piece in Southampton’s network of open spaces and natural resources.”

She estimates that the grant will cover between 40% and 50% of the estimated design phase cost.

The Greenway will also cross East Street roughly 900 feet northwest of the East Street bridge, according to Southampton Highway Superintendent Randall Kemp. Accommodating pedestrian safety concerns in this area was a major factor in pushing the East Street bridge project forward, he said.

The town has been pursuing this project for more than a decade and has been discussing its possibility for more than two decades. Fowles said that the town has completed various studies, property research, and public outreach including a feasibility study in 2011, public outreach meetings at various stages, a review of bridges and culverts along the proposed trail in 2017, and a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment in 2018.

In the summer of 2020, results of the master plan community engagement survey showed that completing the bike path ranked highest among eight development strategies for the town. Of those responding, 74% indicated either support or strong support for the bike path, said Fowles.

Through the state Department of Transportation’s Transportation Improvement Program, she said the state has already set aside approximately $6 million in funding toward the future construction of the trail, but the town has needed to complete many preliminary phases to get access to those funds. Fowles credited the Ad Hoc Grant Search Committee, of which she serves as the committee’s chairperson, for making significant strides in securing grant funding.

At this point, the town is coordinating with its legal representation to complete the “railbanking” agreement, which will allow the town to acquire the land from the Pioneer Valley Railroad Company, according to Aaron Tauscher, chairperson of the town’s Greenway Committee.

Fowles said that the town intends to close on the acquisition by the end of November or early December.

Tauscher estimates that it could be multiple years before a final design is available. An engineering firm has also not been named yet.

“If all goes according to plan, we’re hopeful that we’ll have construction scheduled within the next few years. We intend to share more concrete details with community members as progress is made, and community input will be vitally important to the next few steps of the project,” he said in an emailed statement. “Reaching out for the needs, desires, and questions of the town residents will help shape the design of the path, and we’re looking forward to engaging with residents more in the near future.”

He also encouraged town residents to watch the town’s webpage for upcoming Greenway meetings to attend, or to reach out to the committee with any questions, at greenway@townofsouthampton.org.

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