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In Hadley, MassDOT, DCR Shut Down Norwottuck Trail With No Viable Detours

The Norwottock Rail Trail is the only ADA-accessible route across the Town of Hadley, and hundreds of people use it on a daily basis.

A homemade sign printed on 8.5"x11" paper is haphazardly taped to the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel. The sign uses different fonts for each line of text. The top line reads (in blue, italicized text): "Join other trail users:" the next line, in black, larger text: "Plan an alternate route", the next line, smaller black text: "to use during the" (in red, larger italicized text) "upcoming" (final line, red bolder text) "tunnel closure". On the left side of the paper, someone has hand-written the word "When?" with a black marker. Fine print at the bottom of the sign says "FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT PARK SUPERVISOR AT (413) 387-4339."

A sign printed on office paper taped to the Route 9 tunnel is the only notice trail users got of this fall’s Norwottuck Trail closure in Hadley. DCR and MassDOT have declined to provide a safe alternate route across the dangerous roadway above.

A critical segment on one of the busiest regional trails in western Massachusetts, the Norwottock Rail Trail between Northampton and Amherst, will be closed to traffic for a month this fall because of a nearby road widening project.

MassDOT is currently rebuilding Route 9 through Hadley to widen the roadway with a new center turning lane, sidewalks, and shoulders.

As part of that project, MassDOT will need to lengthen an existing bike and pedestrian tunnel that carries the Norwottuck Rail Trail, a popular 8-mile commuting route between Amherst and downtown Northampton, under Route 9.

That means that a crucial segment of the trail will close for a month this fall, until Friday, October 6.

No safe detour

The Norwottock Rail Trail in Hadley is the only ADA-accessible route across the Town of Hadley, and hundreds of people use it on a daily basis.

The trail links three college campuses, several large shopping centers along Route 9, and the downtown districts of Amherst and Northampton.

In spite of its importance as a transportation facility, both MassDOT and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which manages the Norwottuck Rail Trail as part of the Connecticut River Greenways State Park, neglected to provide any safe detours during this month's closure.

That means trail users have no safe way to cross a chaotic construction zone on Route 9, a busy two-lane highway that currently has no sidewalks or crosswalks.

Even if trail users do manage that crossing safely, they still need to walk or bike for up to a mile along narrow, high-speed roads to get back onto the trail on the other side:

Map of Route 9 and the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Hadley. Route 9 runs diagonally from lower left (SW) to upper right (NE) while the green line representing the trail runs in a less-steep diagonal path that crosses Route 9 in the center. A red X at the intersection marks the location labelled "Rt. 9 Tunnel Closure".
Map of Route 9 and the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Hadley.

"MassDOT and DCR encourage bicyclists and pedestrians to find safe, alternative routes," MassDOT spokesperson John Goggin told StreetsblogMASS. "No formal detours for bicyclists and pedestrians have been implemented."

Note the use of the passive voice in that second sentence – colloquially known as the "weasel voice" for the way it avoids assigning responsibility.

To put it in more honest, straightforward language: MassDOT did not implement safe detours for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Jes Slavin, the communications coordinator for MassBike, witnessed a lot of confusion among trail users when she visited the site last weekend.

West of the closed tunnel, there is a gated ramp that connects the trail to the north side of Route 9.

But there's no connection from the trail to the other (south) side of the roadway anywhere in the vicinity of the closed tunnel.

The most viable detour route appears to be Mill Valley Road, a narrow 2-lane roadway without sidewalks that runs through farm fields and connects back to the trail via Maple Street (see map above)

"I watched several people get onto Route 9, which is wicked busy right now," Salvin told StreetsblogMASS in an email.

"To the right (west), you go about 300 feet before having to take a left turn onto a side street (Mill Valley Road), which could be very tricky," said Slavin, who also shared this photo of a man attempting that crossing with a young child:

A man and child riding. a bike onto a 2-lane roadway. A row of jersey barriers blocks the opposite side of the street. Beyond are some power lines and trees, and in the foreground is a gate.
A man and child attempt to cross Route 9 where MassDOT construction has shut down a bike and pedestrian underpass that connects the Norwottuck Rail Trail under the busy roadway. Courtesy of Jess Slavin, MassBike.

Trail users in the dark

The two agencies issued a press release about the closure at the beginning of September, but many trail users did not see it.

And the only notice that the agencies posted on the trail itself was an unofficial-looking sign printed on letter-sized office paper and haphazardly taped to the tunnel entrance (see photo above).

That sign neglected to provide any information about safe detour routes or dates of the closure; some fine print at the bottom directs people to call a DCR phone number "for more information."

When StreetsblogMASS called that number to ask about a safe alternative way to cross Route 9, a DCR employee told us that "DCR does not have the authority to make any plans for alternate routes – It wouldn’t be DCR, you'd have to ask MassDOT."

When pressed to explain why DCR wouldn't provide a safe detour for users of its trail, the employee again insisted that it was not their responsibility.

"DCR is saying this is not our project. We do have not authority in this instance. You’re speaking to the wrong person," they told StreetsblogMASS.

That employee also asked us not to identify them for this story.

"If you quote me on anything, I’ll get in big trouble," they told StreetsblogMASS when we asked for their name (because this person was not primarily responsible for DCR's lack of consideration, we're honoring that request).

StreetsblogMASS has also reached out to the Commonwealth's accessibility compliance office to learn whether MassDOT is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with this closure.

This story will be updated if and when we get a response.

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