Newtown Rail Trail faces another important crossroads

Newtown Bicycle Shop owner Harry Betz hopes these railroad tracks will one day be gone if favor of the proposed Newtown Rail Trail (Photo by Wayne Fish).
      Sometimes both sides of a debate can have merit.
      For example, take the seems-like-forever-in-the-planning Newtown Rail Trail project.
      One year it appears to be on, the next it’s shadowed under clouds.
      It felt like construction of the approximate eight-mile trail, which would connect Newtown with the Pennypack Trail extension all the way down to Philadelphia and the Delaware River, was about to begin in earnest after Northampton approved the plan in early 2020.
      Not so fast said those who are opposed, including home owners whose residences are situated hard by the proposed thoroughfare for walkers, hikers, runners and hikers.
      Apparently the upcoming election next month could turn things in a different direction if certain candidates are elected. There’s a sense the 4-1 vote in favor of the trail two years ago could be reversed by a new regime.
      The objections include privacy and safety concerns, as well as less pressing issues such as noise and litter.
      Meanwhile, advocates point out interest in bicycles is at an all-time high, in part because of the pandemic and the restrictions it placed on activities such as gym closures in 2020 and part of 2021. Road traffic is higher than ever, so opening non-vehicle trails are great for everyone interested in exercise.
      Harry Betz, owner and operator of Newtown Bicycle Store, says both sides have a fair argument.
      “I would say the bulk of the people want to have a recreational trail, recreational opportunities,’’ he said. “There are only a few people who don’t want that and they only seem to care about themselves.
      “On the other hand, the perception is you’re going to put a trail adjacent to my backyard and I get it, I personally wouldn’t want a trail behind my house. That said, many people want it. And don’t forget, a lot of people who live along the trail were also there when railroad trains used to go by.’’
      SEPTA ran trains on the line until 1983.
      Northampton has the longest stretch of the proposed trail, 4.3 miles. Betz points out that all the other municipalities along the way have voted in favor of it. Northampton has only voted in favor of a study.
      “We’re at a crossroads,’’ Betz said. He adds that even if the project were to get officially underway soon, the trail wouldn’t be completed before 2025.
      It looks like the “bicycle movement’’ is here to stay. Bike orders/sales are so monumental, it takes upwards of one to two years to get a two-wheeler due to supply chain delays, mainly from China where most bikes are constructed.
      “There are so many people who haven’t been riding that now are riding,’’ Betz said. “It all started with COVID. People had to do something so they discovered the wonderful world of bicycling. It really brought a lot of people into the sport who weren’t into it and they’re sticking with it.’’
      Runners already flock to the Pennypack Trail, the crown jewel of running venues in Northeast Philadelphia. The Newtown Rail Trail would provide a way of joining that trail from Bucks County without having to throw a bike in the back of your car.
      “More and more people would bicycles if there were more safe places to ride,’’ Betz said. “Like around Newtown, you’re taking your life in your hands if you want to go around the corner. It’s not safe, it’s car-centric. And it’s likely to be that way for quite some time.’’
      Betz believes the trail will get done, it’s just a question of when.
      “I’m optimistic it will get done at some point,’’ he said. “If they stay with pro-trail, the trail will be completed in five years. If this throws a wrench into it, maybe 10 years,’’
      Here is the statement from the Newtown Rail Trail folks:
      “We thought we were done with this effort, but the anti-trail group is still pushing to stop this. The only way to end this fight is to have five pro-trail Northampton Township supervisors. The opportunity is this November 2. In 2020 we got the right people on the Board of Supervisors and the Newtown Rail Trail was approved. We now need to keep the momentum going. The current supervisors, township officials, and Bucks County Planners have worked together creating a Master-Trail-Bicycle-Facilities-Plan to improve Northampton. Recently Phase II of the Newtown Rail Trail, Bristol Road to the Churchville Nature Center, was approved for design by the Regional Technical Committee (RTC) and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). Our group has work countless hours supporting this effort, we don’t want to impede any progress or let this opportunity slip away.’’
      The organization is endorsing two Democratic candidates for township commissioners who presumably will vote to keep the project intact.
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About Wayne Fish 2446 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.