April 29, 2013

From the left: Bucknell University seniors Matt Szymanski, Gil Erlich and Emily Gladstone.

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By Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Gil Erlich won't graduate until next fall, but he's already looking forward to the day he can return to the Lewisburg area with his family to show them the impact he made on the community. Erlich, along with senior civil and environmental engineering majors Emily Gladstone and Matt Szymanski, are working on a Senior Design Project that will help extend the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail into downtown Lewisburg and across the Susquehanna River into Northumberland County.

"Knowing that the hours we put in as a team will contribute to an actual, real-world project has certainly enhanced the experience," Erlich, a civil and environmental engineering and management major, said. "I'm much more passionate about it."

The three students are working along side Larson Design Group to help with a preliminary design for the extension between Route 15 and Fifth Street, and a conceptual design from Fifth Street to the other side of the Susquehanna River.

The students have been gathering and analyzing data such as vehicular and parking counts, pedestrian traffic and cycling habits. They meet with representatives from Larson every two weeks to exchange information and work on the designs.

"This experience has taught me that engineering design is much more than equations, standards and AUTOCAD," Szymanski said. "We're attending public meetings, working with various stakeholder groups and learning to deal with public input, politics and budgets. It's a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity."

"This project draws on the students' four years in the civil engineering program and requires them to synthesize and apply the many skills, tools, and methods learned" added Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Michelle Oswald. "I think the students realize how valuable this experience is, especially when it comes to being prepared for working in the engineering field.  Through this process it has been wonderful to see them shift from "student" to "working professional" as they attended and led public meetings, worked alongside a professional design firm, and contributed to a local grant -overall it has been a transformative capstone experience."

Though it's not part of the current expansion plans, the students are also designing a pedestrian intersection at Route 15 that would allow trail users to safely cross the roadway.

"There are many challenges in addressing the Route 15 crossing and although it is not part of the current plan, I believe it is important for the students to investigate the challenges, explore possible alignment designs, as well as propose viable solutions, " Oswald said.

The first phase of the trail, a nine-mile stretch between 12th Street in East Buffalo Township and 8th Street in Mifflinburg, has been a popular attraction and economic boon for the area since opening in 2011. A recent study by Oswald, Professor of Economics Thomas Kinnaman, civil and environmental engineering major Kelly Burkhart '14 and sociology and economics major Mike Nicholson '14, estimates more than 1,100 people use the trail each month, with a direct economic impact on the area of more than $280,000 a year.

"Besides the economic and transportation benefits, the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail has created healthy recreation opportunities for people of all ages," said Katie Davis, Executive Director of the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority. "I feel strongly that having the rail trail extend into downtown Lewisburg will help build stronger community pride and identity, and we're very fortunate to have the students and Professor Oswald's enthusiasm and experience on board with this project."

The trail's value to the community is something the students hope to enhance through their work on the extension.

"We are trying to help create a safe, pedestrian-friendly and sustainable transportation option for the community," said Gladstone, who already has a job lined up after graduation with a Baltimore-based construction firm. "The work we're doing is going to be used to improve the community, and that's pretty exciting."