Thursday, September 07, 2006

Bike trails as economic development focus of Sept. 27 panel; $5M available, Olver's office says

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Bicycle trails as drivers of eco-tourism, recreation and economic development will be the featured topic later this month when a three-speaker panel kicks off the fall monthly dinner scheduled of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce. The Wed., Sept. 27, dinner will also be the first chance for members to meet the Chamber's new Executive Director, Kathleen McDonald.

U.S. Rep. John W. Olver has secured up to $5 million in federal funding for expansion of bike trails throughout the First Congressional District and Olver.s Pittsfield office manager, Rhonda Serre, will be among panelists discussing how the funds may be obtained and used. The featured speaker will be Marjorie Cohan, chairman of the Berkshire Bikepath Council, which is helping manage studies for the expansion of the Ashuwillticook Trail bikepath north to North Adams and south to Pittsfield.

Serre and Cohan will be joined by Williams College environmental-studies professor Sarah Gardner, who has managed student studies of three different proposed bikepath routes, including one from Williamstown to Pownal, Vt. Gardner will review possible paths for a North Adams-Williamstown extension of the Ashuwillticook Trail.

A link to a December 2003 study by three Williams College students on extending the trail to Pownal, Vt. :

The dinner Sept. 27 at Le Jardin Restaurant is preceded by a cash bar at 5:30 p.m. and is open to non-chamber members. For reservations call the chamber at 458-9077.

Olver, D-Mass., has been an advocate for bicycle trails since at least 1998, when he helped obtain $3 million in federal funds to construct the 10.5-mile Ashuwillticook rail-trail between Adams and the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough along an abandoned railroad right of way. He says such trails "make the Berkshires even more attractive to the growing tourist business in the state."

Heavy public use of the trail -- and its positive effect on downtown Adams -- has lead to plans to expand the trail both north and south. State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, announced in the spring that he expected another $300,000 in planning money from the state for the trail's expansion as far as Williamstown.

In April of 2005, Oliver pushed to reserve the $5 million in additional federal construction money. "Mr. Olver believes that bike paths are very important to improving the quality of life of the residents of the area as well as a draw for recreational tourism," Oliver's Pittsfield office staffer, Serre, said at the time, adding: "They also promote physical fitness and use of non-motorized modes of transportation."

.The Congressman's 2005 earmark for $5 million is still available to be used for final design and construction of Berkshire-area bike paths,. Serre says. .That money is essentially on a first-come, first-serve basis. So if a north-county effort moves quickly, the funds should be available for that use..

Some of the questions Gardner and Cohan will consider include: What is the overall status of funding for the expansion efforts? When will the planning efforts lead to construction? And what information is available from elsewhere in the nation -- and state -- about the economic and tourism impact of dedicated bicyle-walking pathways?

The Berkshire Bikepath Council has 15 directors, according to its website, Among those from northern Berkshire County are Gardner, restaurateur Nancy Garton, hospital administrator Paul Hopkins and environmental writer Lauren Stevens. Advisory-board members include North Adams City Councilor Gailanne Cariddi, former Adams selectman Joseph Dean, Berkshire Natural Resources Council Director Tad Ames and Mount Greylock Regional School District Supt. William Travis.

The bike path council's website reports that, in a collaborative effort, lead by North Adams received $70,000 last year to further efforts to extend the Ashuwillticook from Adams to North Adams and to Williamstown. VHB of New York was hired to do the planning work and complete the project. Donna Cesan, Adams community-development director, has been that town's lead person, along with Laura Cece, North Adams city finance director. Cece says the $70,000 has been spent, partly in consultations with the railroad. More planning funds are sought from the state.

The website adds: "Through a Berkshire County Regional Planning Scenic Byway grant to develop projects from Greenfield to Williamstown, money has been assigned for the route from North Adams to Williamstown. The site says a scenic-byway grant from the state's Mass Highway unit is pending.

The U.S. National Park Service Rivers & Trails program has a state director, Charles Tracy, who, according to Olver's office, has helped more than 20 communities in Massachusetts coordinate and develop locally-based conservation projects without the use of federal management of ownership. For more information about the NPS partnership, contact Charles Tracy at 617-223-5051.