SOMERVILLE, Mass. – Congress must know a little something about Massachusetts drivers because it has approved about $40 million to create or extend more than a dozen bicycle paths from the Berkshires to Boston.
“Biking is free,” said Abi Harper, 26, who pedaled to work Friday along the Somerville bike path, which will be extended toward Boston under the federal bill. “It’s better than getting into a car and sitting in traffic in this weather.”
Like most paths, the trails are just as likely to be used by joggers, walkers or parents pushing baby strollers, which is why advocates are flat out giddy about the new bill. Some projects have waited 10 years to be funded.
“There’s been a reawakening around the United States in terms of discovering lost things,” said Craig Della Penna, a Northampton resident who helps municipalities turn old rail lines into recreational paths. “These corridors are being discovered.”
Congress last week approved the six-year, $286 billion highway and mass transit bill. The measure was two years in the making and includes so many “earmarks” for local projects that just a handful of lawmakers voted against it. President Bush promised to sign it.
There are dozens of existing recreational paths spanning hundreds of miles around Massachusetts, and many more are in the works. Della Penna said there are 200 “rail-to-trail” projects proposed in a 100-mile radius around Northampton, including one plan that eventually would link Northampton to Boston.
“They become the most well-loved thing in the community,” Della Penna, who operates the nonprofit Northeast Greenway Solutions. “They rejuvenate communities.”
Rejuvenation is one of the goals of the proposed Holyoke Canal Walk, which received $3.5 million under the federal bill to construct walkways, railings, lighting and landscaping along old mill buildings downtown. The project has been 10 years in the making. Construction could begin next spring.
“This is a huge opportunity for Holyoke, which is a community that could really use a shot in the arm,” said Christopher Curtis, head planner at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, serving 43 communities.
The bill also provides $4.4 million for Hampshire County bike paths, $4 million for the Southwick and Westfield rail trail, and $1.2 million for the East Longmeadow Redstone rail-trail path.
“We’ve never had anything quite as significant as this in terms of number of projects and the dollar amount,” Curtis said. “This may be the high point. It’s good news for all of Massachusetts. Everybody is close enough to one of these projects to take advantage of it.”
In Somerville, the bike path would be extended by a half-mile. Currently, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway stretches about 12 miles, from Bedford through Lexington, Arlington, North Cambridge, and into Somerville, where it stops about 1.5 miles from Boston.
“Ultimately the goal is to link the Minuteman Bikeway . . . to the Charles River,” said Dorrie Clark, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, or MassBike. “Someone who lives out in the suburbs could bike in to the city to their jobs on bike paths.”