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Train crossing work in Deerfield proceeds amid town concerns

The railroad crossing on Elm Street in South Deerfield.
Recorder/Micky Bedell

The railroad crossing on Elm Street in South Deerfield. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Town officials still have unaddressed concerns about the state’s planned upgrades to two of the town’s train crossings, even as the work has begun.

The upgrades, which have been designed to accommodate Amtrak passenger trains traveling between New York and Montreal through Greenfield, have been the source of substantial controversy over the past two years.

Last Thursday, representatives from the Department of Transportation were supposed to meet with a group of town officials — including Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness, interim Town Administrator Kayce Warren, Police Chief John Paciorek Jr., South Deerfield Fire Chief William Swasey and Planning Board member Roger Sadoski Jr. — to hear their concerns.

But, when the presence of a reporter became known, the representatives left and canceled the meeting, informing Paciorek that a situation had arisen on a work site that needed their attention.

“MassDOT continues to work with the Town of Deerfield on this project,” said DOT spokesperson Amanda Richard in a subsequent email. “The meeting in question was not a public meeting.”

Ness said afterward that town officials are concerned about the DOT’s plans to build concrete islands on both sides of the Elm Street crossing, which she said would narrow the road to 12 feet and could impede traffic and commerce in the area.

She noted that work being done on Damon Road in Northampton did not include islands, and questioned why that same accommodation could not be made in Deerfield.

Additionally Ness said, the islands would present an obstacle during the winter for the town’s plows.

According to interim Highway Superintendent Kevin Scarborough, an agreement was reached with PanAm Railways Tuesday morning regarding the construction of the islands. He said distance between the islands will be widened to 14 feet to accommodate the plows, and they will be made of granite instead of concrete or asphalt. Additionally, the island that will be located in front of Leader Home Center will be made of cobblestone to prevent it from impeding traffic.

“The islands are necessary to protect the signals in the middle, and PanAm has been extremely helpful in widening the westbound area,” Scarborough said.

Town officials are also concerned about the DOT’s unwillingness to move the crossing on Pleasant Street to Conway Street. The Pleasant Street crossing is close to the elementary school, and closing it would help to eliminate car traffic past the elementary school. The Conway Street crossing was originally closed because it was close to the former elementary school, which is now being used as the Town Hall. Now, said Ness, the situation is reversed.

According to Scarborough, the Pleasant Street crossing’s length and elevation will be increased to allow the Fire Department’s ladder truck to pass, which it currently cannot do without “bottoming out.”

Doing so, however, would allow motorists to pass the crossing at higher speeds, increasing the likelihood that a student or employee from the school could be hit while crossing to the school from the parking lot, which is across the street. Scarborough said installing speed bumps or rumble strips would not be possible due to issues with winter plowing and noise problems for nearby residents.

Moving the Pleasant Street crossing would effectively put the school on a dead-end, Ness said.

Ness also noted that trains will be traveling through town at much higher speeds than in the past, with passenger trains getting up to 60 miles per hour. Until now, only freight trains, which she said moved through the area about 5 miles per hour, have used the tracks.

“They need to do the right thing,” said Ness. “For us, this is a safety issue and it’s non-negotiable.”

In June, the DOT said performing such work would be “outside the scope of the present project,” and would need to be done as a separate, future project.

Ness said the town would apply for a grant to have a traffic flow study done.

Both crossings are expected to get roadway and signal system improvements and sidewalk extensions to improve safety and provide a clear pedestrian path through the crossings. Though the rail upgrades will be performed this month, other parts of the upgrades, including installing the islands, will take place later this year.

According to email announcements from the town, the Pleasant Street crossing will be closed this week, and the Elm Street crossing will be closed from Aug. 18 to 20. The North Hillside crossing will be closed on Friday from 7 a.m. until completion.

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