Guest columnist Craig Della Penna: Central Rail Trail would put city at crossroads

By CRAIG DELLA PENNA

Published: 08-16-2023 3:48 PM

A couple of years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece about the prospective completion of the Mass Central Rail Trail (MCRT) and its potential impact on downtown Northampton. I was surprised to note that in recent discussions about the remake of our beautiful hometown, no real mention was made of this this big, amazing opportunity.

Last August, the Norwottuck Network, the support organization for our eponymous rail trail, contracted with Kittelson & Associates of Boston, partnering with Cambridge Econometrics of Northampton, to produce an economic impact report about the completion of the Mass Central Rail Trail, of which our Norwottuck Rail Trail is the western terminus. The completed trail will stretch 104 miles from Union Station in Northampton to North Station in Boston. And intersect with 18 others along the way.

Compelling evidence of the economic value of multi-use trails led New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to order the New York State Department of Transportation to rapidly build the 750-mile-long Empire State Trail; it runs from Manhattan north to the Canadian border, and also from Buffalo to Albany.

Top-level Massachusetts officials sat up and took notice. They commissioned a study from MassDOT investigating whether the 104-mile-long Central Rail Trail could in fact be pieced together, and discovered that it is entirely possible, though also complicated. A link to the MassDOT study online can be found at tinyurl.com/MassDOTMCRTStudy. The study provided the impetus for the Norwottuck Network to investigate: What would a completed 104-mile-long trail mean to the commonwealth and the communities along the way?

Kittelson & Associates found that the completed trail would draw 5 million users a year, of whom 400,000 to 500,000 will be overnight visitors, yielding about $200 million to the commonwealth and communities on the trail each year (Link to the Kittelson report: www.nnnetwork.net/the-report.)

Downtown Northampton is the at the intersection of the longest interstate trail, linking the New Haven & Northampton Canal Greenway (www.NHNCG.org) to the longest trail in New England, the MCRT (www.MassCentralRailTrail.org ). Combined, these two trails are almost 200 miles long. Scheduled passenger rail service among the three main cities — New Haven, Northampton and Boston — will facilitate all sorts of creative entrepreneurship, from B&Bs to eateries, bike shops, and bike tour companies.

We can capture our fair share of the exploding interest in bicycling, hiking and other outdoor family activities by sharing the stunning beauty and rich history of our state, while providing revenue for our coffers. As a character in the film “Field of Dreams” notes, “If you build it, [they] will come.”

Northampton is perfectly positioned to claim home base. Have you noticed the mile marker at Union Station? It marks MILE 0 for both trails, toward Boston and toward New Haven. The Norwottuck Network submitted the Kittelson report to Gov. Maura Healey and her administration. Our congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, opined that this report is perfectly timed to win the infrastructure funds to make this dream a reality.

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Actively incorporating the MCRT project into the plans to revamp downtown Northampton will likely make both projects a reality.

Craig Della Penna is board chairman of Norwottuck Network, a 501(c)(3) organization. He lives in Florence.

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