By Angeljean Chiaramida
As part of the Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project, recreation trail advocates are making a last-ditch effort to force transportation officials to add another access way to the shared-use path planned for the interstate and get the state to commit to connect rail trails in Salisbury and Amesbury.
The $300 million Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project is set to start in 2013 under the control of the state Department of Transportation. The centerpiece of the project is the replacement of the Whittier Bridge, but it will also include the replacement or reconstruction of four nearby bridges along I-95 in Amesbury and Newburyport and other highway improvements between exits 57 and 60. When completed in 2016, there will be four travel lanes, a shoulder adjacent to the high-speed lane and a breakdown lane both north and south bound.
In addition, the project boasts the creation of the Whittier Trail, the first shared-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians to be constructed along a Massachusetts interstate. The path expands upon a feature of the original, 1951 John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge, which included a walkway that offered a scenic overlook parking area near the Newburyport shoreline.
Although recreation trail enthusiasts are pleased transportation authorities are adding a path along a small section the Interstate, they want the state to add another access off the I-95 trail that would lead to Main Street in Amesbury. They also seek to close the gap that exists between Amesbury's Riverwalk trail and the Salisbury Point Ghost Trial by building a trail along an abandoned railroad right-of-way connecting the two.
But now that design plans are being finalized, the state has refused to do either.
Since the project needs its final environmental approval before it can proceed, path proponents are urging Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan to use his power to require DOT to adopt the two measure they feel are necessary.
Running along the eastern side of the northbound lane, the roughly $8 million shared-use path will originate at the Park-And-Ride lot at Newburyport's Exit 57. According to MassDOT's Environmental Impacts and Mitigation Commitments summary, it will parallel I-95, crossing the Merrimack River and continuing north in Amesbury to south of Exit 58, where the path splits into two legs.
One leg will turn to the east and terminate at a parking area to be provided at the end of Old Merrill Street in Amesbury. Although this is a good access way, according to Amesbury Community and Economic Development Director Joe Fahey, it isn't the city's first choice. A Main Street/Evans Place access would be better, and Fahey hopes MassDOT will reconsider and add it to its plans. When Amesbury officials first spoke to those involved in the design of the project, Fahey made it clear the city preferred the Main Street access.
"If you look at the way people come to the area now, a significant number of people use Main Street and Pleasant Valley Road all the time to ride along the river and connect to other areas," Fahey said. "It just makes more sense to have it come to that location."
Transportation officials told Fahey is would be too difficult to build an access ramp there.
"As proposed, the (shared-use trail) project has three points of access from I-95," MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes said recently. "A fourth point of access has been requested, but we are unable to accommodate that request. There would be too many environmental concerns and there are also geometrical issues with intersections in this area that make this option a public safety concern."
Salisbury Selectman Jerry Klima believes MassDOT rejected the Main Street/Evans Place access route because the state doesn't own enough land to build a ramp there. To get more land, the state would have to acquire it, and both Klima and Fahey believe a goal of MassDOT in the Whittier Bridge/I-95 project was to have no permanent takings of land by the state.
As for the end of the other leg of the shared-use I-95 trail, it will continue north within the I-95 right-of-way, parallel the highway, turning to follow it to the off-ramp at Exit 58 and to Route 110. The path will then continue east parallel to Route 110, ending at the southwest corner of Salisbury's intersection of Merrill Street, Rabbit Road and Route 110.
What recreation trail advocates hope for in this general area is for the state to connect Amesbury's Riverwalk recreation trail to the Salisbury Point Ghost Rail Trail. Salisbury's trail is close to this intersection, and a connection with the Riverwalk trail offers a safe off-road connection between Salisbury and Amesbury. Along with completing part of the Coastal Trails network of 30 miles of alternative transportation byways in the Lower Merrimack Valley, Klima said, this connect would prevent people from biking along Route 110.
"You take your life in your hands riding on Route 110," Klima said.
Fahey said when the Whittier project was starting, transportation officials considered making this link, but later it lost impetus. Both Fahey and Klima again believe the state dropped it because it would require a taking to make the connection possible. Fahey said a private property owner holds land stretching from the old railroad bed to Amesbury's Elm Street, which is needed to join the trails.
"The individual who owns the land has no intention of selling (the land needed for the trail connection) unless it is part and parcel of a sale of a multi-acre piece of property he owns," Fahey said. "(Amesbury) doesn't have the funds to buy it."
But Verseckes said the land in questions is not within the scope of the project.
"The land is outside the existing project limits," Verseckes said. "It's not so much of whether or not we've got a policy with respect to land takings. Rather, the project limits as defined don't include that specific area. Any improvements made do not necessarily preclude from making any changes in the future, but at this time, it is not included as part of this project."
Klima and others are appealing to Environmental Secretary Sullivan in hopes he'll mandate MassDOT has to connect the Amesbury and Salisbury recreation trails and add the Main Street/Evans Place access in Amesbury in order to get the environmental approval needed.
Yet, Klima said during the planning process, state environmental officials told MassDOT to use the Whittier Bridge/I-95 Improvement Project to look into the feasibility of adding more recreations trails, connecting those that exist and advancing public safety issues. Given their current plans, Klima doesn't think MassDOT has met those environmental goals.
"(W)e hope the Secretary (Sullivan) will require MassDOT to make a connection at Main Street in Amesbury, and to help improve public safety by acquiring the easements needed to make the connection between the Ghost Trail and Amesbury," Klima said.
According to a December letter written to Sullivan by Town Manager Neil Harrington, failure on MassDOT's part to facilitate the connect between the Salisbury and Amesbury trails is actually in conflict with USDOT's police statements concerning such paths, which provide for "safe, convenient and interconnected transportation networks."