Mass Highway Springs into Action
Let's Create A Scenic Greenway,
First, Clear-Cut All the Trees
By Edward Shanahan
Witnessing the scale of the brutal tree removal currently being carried out by heavy equipment for the extension of the Northampton Bike Trail, it is hard to visualize the promised scenic greenway to be enjoyed by cyclists, walkers, runners and others.
In the last couple of weeks, it appears that hundreds and hundreds of trees have been grubbed, or wrenched from a swath of forested land adjacent to Look Park along Route 9 as well as over the former railroad bed that will take the $1,757,998 trail eventually to Grove Avenue in the Leeds section of the city.
In the wake of this wounding construction activity are raw remains of freshly mangled stumps, which will soon be ripped from the ground to make way for the actual trail construction work, which scheduled to be completed in November, 2010.
Few officials want to talk for the record about the specific number of trees that are affected, but Deb Jacobs, chair of the Northampton Tree Committee, said she finds the tree removal “very disturbing.” Yet, her committee has no jurisdiction over the bike trail right of way, nor has it role to play in protecting the trees that are slated to be taken down inside Look Park into which the trail extension dips briefly as it begins its journey west from the North Main Street/Bridge Road intersection. “I’m just frustrated that they have to take down so many.”
After a recent visit to the construction area to take some photographs, an engineer familiar with the trail extension project called what he saw “shocking.” He attributed the excessive cutting to an attitude of Mass Highway, the agency supervising the extension work, that “trees are ancillary.” Of Mass Highway, he said: “Those people just don’t get it.” He believes that local engineers would have been more restrained in targeting so many trees for removal.
Particularly ravaged by recent work is the tree screen between Route 9 and the park property beginning at the Garden House and including the many trees that sheltered the former rail bed from Route 9 vehicular traffic. The trail behind such businesses as the Look Restaurant and the gas station and convenience store across from the VA Medical Center has been completely denuded of trees, as has the extension as it traverses the Arch Street Bridge. Continuing along Arch Street, scores of trees behind homes there have been removed, and at that point as the trail heads west we lose sight of it until its later entry into the Leeds village center.
Requests to officials of Mass Highway by downstreet.net to specify how many trees were earmarked for removal and how many would actually to cut down and taken away did not yield any hard information.
A state engineer, who did not want his name used, returned a phone call to downstreet.net, and said, probably jokingly, that he had just spent 4 1/2 hours counting the number of trees removed in order to respond to our inquiry. He called the trees in question “scrubby, useless trees.”
According to Adam Hurtubise, a Mass Highway spokesman in Boston, “The trees to be taken down are within a narrow corridor. The contractor is not clear-cutting through the park. This plan was vetted during the design stage of the project, when there was an opportunity for public input.” He also said that the extension is a multi-use trail … that not only serves a recreational purpose, but also as an alternate commuting tool for people in the Greater Northampton area, taking cars off the road, reducing congestion and pollution, and thereby being environmentally friendly.”
Yet, the way in which Mass Highway has gone about creating this “environmentally friendly” project seems to have been done with an excessively heavy hand, in the tradition of breaking some eggs to whip up an omelet.
Interviews with two members of the Leeds Civic Association, Jim Mias and George Kohout, who is also a member of the city planning board, expressed strong support for the bike trail extension and less concern about the short-term loss of trees.
Kohout said that while the construction site looks “rough” now, most of the trees being removed are only 15 or 20 years old, having grown up since the railroad abandoned the roadbed.
Mias, a serious biker, said that with 450 miles of roadway in Northampton, to add another two miles of bike trails for a total of seven miles, “is no big deal.” He said he did not have the background to comment on the engineering design, but “I don’t get too sanctimonious” about these matters. Many people who claim to “ worry about the woods, I never see them in the woods.” Mias said.
In an interview with downstreet.net, Wayne Feiden, director of planning and development for the city, said, while the city had responsibility for the design plan of the trail the engineering, decisions and construction details rest with Mass Highway, its engineering consultant, MS Transportation Systems, Inc. of Natick and the contractor, E.T. & L. Corp., of Stow. And the consulting firm produced an engineering design that is consistent with Mass Highway guidelines.
The federal government covers 80 percent of the cost of the project; the state, 20 percent.
Feiden, a strong advocate and architect of the expansion of the network of bike trails in and around Northampton, said that in planning this extension the city was determined that the design be the same as that of the original Francis P. Ryan bikeway built more than 25 years ago. With a 10-foot traveled surface and five feet of cleared easement on either side, Feiden said this trail has held up much better than the narrower trail built to cross the Connecticut River which heads east to Hadley and Amherst.
If Mass Highway and the contractor find the design requires cutting down more trees, it is “their call,” he said.
In our telephone conversation, Feiden said he had not inspected the construction site recently, but said “I can’t defend” excessive cutting. “I wouldn’t want to take down any more trees than necessary.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that the bulk of the grubbing and tree removal work had pretty much taken place, and it is too late to slow down or alter the process.
An examination of the engineering plans on file at the Planning Board office, produced few insights into what trees were slated for removal along the length of the extension, although in the portion of the work within Look Park there were specific references to maple trees that would be removed as well as several areas where trees were slated to be protected.
Efforts to talk to Ray Ellerbrook, director of the park, were not successful, despite two calls to the park, and messages left on his voice mail and one left with Peggy Merriam at the park.
The park stands to be impacted in a significant way as the trail extension enters and leaves its property, as well as by the presence in the backside of the park near the secondary entry road of the contractor’s heavy equipment and work area.
Asked about that, Mass Highway’s Adam Hurtubise said: “ The contractor has been using a part of the park -- a former storage area--as a staging area. The staging area is not in a wetland. The Conservation Commission made a site visit and approved of the use of this space. The agreement is between the contractor and the park/city. The park has requested that the contractor not do work in the area of the pavilion during ‘wedding season’ and the contractor has agreed to do its best to accommodate.”
Criticism of the Mass Highway project is a little late, said some supporters, who noted that the extension plan had been in the works for nearly a decade, yet only now is shock and outrage being expressed with the beginning of the actual construction work. “I don’t think people realize the whole picture, “ said the Mass Highway engineer who did not want to be identified.
Similarly, the local engineer who also did not want to be identified and was critical of the approach Mass Highway takes in its projects, said: “I think the bike path will be awesome when all is done, when the trees have grown in in 10 years.”
Awesome? I guess we’ll have to wait until 2019 to find out.
Previous, Related Stories
Knowing of my hostile reaction to the extensive tree cutting for the extension of the bike trail from Florence to Leeds, Nick Horton, president of the Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways invited me to ride with him the other day to take a look at the construction work.
Meeting on our bikes at the trail’s current terminus at Bridge Road and Look Park, we first traveled along the new paved section adjacent to the park where Nick pointed out the newly planted shrubs and trees that had now replaced the trees that had been removed. He acknowledged that it was unfortunate that the tree screen along Route 9 had been cut down but we both were somewhat relieved by the new plantings.
We traveled along the newly paved section as far as the gap at the rear entrance to the park, Nick remarking on the
wide surface which will prevent trees in the future from punching through or lifting up the traveled surface.
We then rode through the park itself to view the construction work from the inside out. . Neither of us fully
understands why the trail actually is designed to enter the park for a short distance, or who made the decision, the park trustees, city planning officials or MassHighway.
Exiting at the rear opening of the park near the gas station/convenience store on Route 9, we both felt the section from that point to the Arch Street bridge and along the Florence Street embankment was pretty barren, almost naked, of trees or greenery.
Our route then took us under the bridge and along Arch Street and then across the river to Leeds Center. For most of this section, the trail is nicely tucked away or virtually out of sight until it hits Mulberry Street and then continues to a connector at the end of Grove Avenue.
At right: Nick Horton/Grove Avenue
We were both somewhat surprised by the extensive tree cutting and heavy construction undertaken at the extension of Grove Avenue in order to create a link to the original railroad roadbed.
During our 45-minute ride, Nick did not try to minimize the significant tree cutting and some obvious rearranging the sections of landscape, but he was very positive about the overall scheme city planners have developed to expand and link up bike routes within the city and connect them with trails beyond it.
From my point of view, the outcome might be fine in the end, after years of restorative growth have filled in the barren spaces and the painful removal of greenway in this section of the city. But together we had an amiable and informative bike ride, despite our differing opinions.
Rail Trail Extension Damage Debated
As a dedicated bicyclist and walker who enjoys both Look Park and the Northampton Bike Trail and as a former member of the Northampton Tree Committee, I was shocked a few weeks ago to witness the wholesale cutting of hundreds of trees along the path of the bike trail extension into Leeds.
The two-year construction project at a cost of $1.8 million (see details in story below) has gotten off to unusually destructive start, both in its impact on Look Park and along Route 9 between the park and Grove Avenue in Leeds.
Others who have read the downstreet.net article have reacted in similar fashion and sent along angry letters of protest – Edward Shanahan
Rationale for the Bike Trail Extension in Leeds
I read both the downstreet.net posting as well as Ann's letter to the editor with interest. My understanding is that the rail trail makes the detour into Look Park to avoid Route 9 (as you know, the original line crossed several hundred yards north of the Bridge Road intersection). By moving the path into Look Park, you avoided having kids heading from the Leeds School area to JFK shunted onto Route 9. I also understand that the Look Park folks wanted to integrate the path.
After reading Ed's piece on downstreet, I went to explore the trail, and got as far as the back entrance to Look Park. While I agree that there are a number of scrub trees that were uprooted, the runoff barrier bales seemed to be in place, and many trees remained outside the line of the path. I'm not a construction expert, but it seemed like there wasn't a wholesale clearcut.
In any case, I continue to look forward to the path opening, and someday having this connect to an arts festival in Florence by the open space between Maple and Chestnut.
I, too, am deeply disappointed with the ravaging of the railway along Route 9 from Florence into Leeds. Surely there could have been a more moderate plan for construction without the bomb-like results with which we now have to live. I only have hope that the final product will look finished and help the bikeway to blend in with the landscape. It is one of the worst city decisions/events I have seen in my lifetime. Those of us who live and work nearby are sorely affected.
Thanks, Ed, for your reporting on the rail trail extension destruction -- we've been meaning to send photos and encourage such an eye-opening report.
Those of us on Grove Ave. abutting it now get to look at a mud wallow behind our homes. They only today put up the silt fencing, a little late. The uprooting of stumps has undercut the embankment along the route, exposing roots and threatening more trees. The construction noise was and will continue to be excruciating.
What a mess, and Wayne (City Planning Director Feiden) and the city just wash their hands of it and blame Mass Highway.
Dear Mr. Shanahan;
I just read your article [on downstreet.net] concerning all the trees removed at Look Park and environs for the bike path. I walk at Look Park every weekday morning at 5:50 am and as it is now much lighter out, I have become more aware of the degree of destruction.
I find it hard to believe that it was necessary to remove so much of the trees and undergrowth in order to build this path. The park used to be quite insulated from the noise of Route 9 by the brush and trees in between, but now that buffer is gone. This is also being done at the worst possible time of year, when birds, squirrels and other creatures are nesting.
I did not realize that the bike path was going to go into the park itself; if I had known that, I certainly would have attended any public forum to protest. This whole mess has reinforced my belief that when you take state money, you give them free rein and woe be unto you.
I'm afraid I have little respect for Mass Highway, and Northampton and Look Park were foolish to allow them to do this with no oversight. It's a damn shame.
Thank you for that article.
Tracey A. Putnam Culver
Smith College Botanic Garden
To the editor:
I’ve just finished my several-times-a-week walk in Look Park. Someone should take my blood pressure. Walking is said to be good for your blood pressure; but walking in Look Park these days certainly is not. For reasons I don’t understand, the extension of the bike path now under construction is taking a short (very short) loop into the park, requiring relatively massive disruption—dozens of trees felled; huge earth-moving rigs, dump trucks, wood chipping machines creating a deafening racket, dust (mud when it rains) and an unsightly landscape.
Why was it necessary for the new section of the bike path to take a loop into Look Park? Was it to introduce the park to people who hadn’t seen it before? Doubtful. The termination of the existing bikeway at Bridge Road makes it easy as pie to cross to the park and ride all the way around, and you don’t even have to pay the admission fee. Truly, I can’t think of any good reason for the intrusion. One more thing. They were charging $4 admission for cars today, and there were a lot less cars there than would be usual on a beautiful spring day. It’s a better place for dump trucks.
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