After 20 years, bike trail still not done

By John Ciampa/ Staff Writer
Chelmsford Independent
Thursday, June 1, 2006

If anyone wonders how long its been since the idea for a bike path in Chelmsford was first approved, they can ask Beverly Woods for a clear reference.

“Twenty years. The same day of the (space shuttle) Challenger accident,” she said.

Woods is the assistant director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, one of 13 regional agencies in the state that monitors planning, development and resource management over a portion of Massachusetts.
A longtime follower of the project, she’s seen it progress from the brainchild of Bruce Freeman – Chelmsford’s late state legislator who served from 1969 to 1986 – to near reality last year, when construction plans for the first phase of a 25-mile path that now bears Freeman’s name were suddenly halted by concerns over the removal of fly ash, a remnant of the coal-burning engines that once traversed the railway from Lowell to Framingham.

Fears of the ash stemmed from construction of the Assabet River Rail Trail, a bikeway extending southwest from Acton to Marlboro. When built, some soil containing elements of the ash was removed and unwittingly piled back into the mounding around the trail during its construction.

Fearing a repeat, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection put the breaks on the next project up for bid – the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.
The BFRT was effectively placed on hold until this spring, when a redesign began that included a method of containing the ash by capping it beneath the pathway during construction, thus inhibiting its ability to spread away from the asphalt trail on top.

Community Development Director Andy Sheehan is optimistic the redesign will be completed this summer before construction goes out to bid. But even if a contract is awarded later this year, Woods is doubtful the project will break ground in 2006.

“It wouldn’t seem to make sense to me for a company to go through all that effort only to stop several weeks later when winter arrives,” she said.
That leaves people like Malcolm Lele, the owner of Chelmsford Cyclery, eagerly awaiting next year.

“I think it would be one of the best things that could happen to this town,” he said.

Lele’s Chelmsford Street shop lies a stone’s throw from a section of track that approaches Central Square alongside the Old Town Hall. From the back of his store you can see the steel rails – elevated on a slope about eight feet off the ground – jut out through a section of immature oaks and maples. Now browned from decades of moisture and neglect, it’s hard to imagine this small stretch as the bustling artery it once was.

With summer approaching and fuel costs on the rise, Lele says business has been strong, and agrees that the addition of bikeway, running literally through the shop’s back yard, would only make things better.

“I would think we’d get some people coming in for things like maintenance and accessories,” he said. “I think some commuters may use it, too, especially if their heading to Lowell.”

Cynthia McLain is a member of the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, a volunteer group that unites residents from towns along the BFRT’s route in support of the trail. She says that before the route can become a true commuter line, it needs to connect with more urban pathways, such as the Minuteman Bikeway, a trail that runs from Bedford to Cambridge.

“What we’re looking at in Chelmsford is not really a commuter trail, but more of a local-type trail,” she said. “I think you’ll see mostly kids and recreational riders use it.”

As for extending the BFRT south past the first phase’s 7.5 mile stretch, McLain said other towns along the route, including Westford, Carlisle, Acton and Concord, have each voted in their respective town meetings to appropriate money under the Community Preservation Act for a feasibility study for Phase 2, which will extend roughly 13.5 miles into south Sudbury.
Chelmsford had the good fortune of obtaining funding for the first phase before the state’s Executive Office of Transportation changed its policies. Phases 2, 3 and 4 now require towns to pay for any preliminary designs while state and federal sources pick up the bulk of the construction costs.

When completed, Woods estimates Phase 1 will cost $5.6 million, with the federal government paying 80 percent and the state contributing 20 percent.
Though no plans currently exist that would potentially link Phase 1 with other routes, Woods said a proposed path through Billerica called the Yankee Doodle Bikeway could come close to the Chelmsford/Lowell line.

Elsewhere, an extension to the Minuteman Bikeway currently being built in a westerly direction through Concord will come within a mile of Phase 2.
“There’s other phases out there in the works,” she said. “Theoretically, we could see some links.”

John Ciampa can be reached at