By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts, Globe Correspondent
October 4, 2007
When Beverly Woods started working on plans for a bike trail along an abandoned rail bed in Westford and Chelmsford, her two children were toddlers and she was hoping they would be able to spend their childhood riding on a safe path through town.
That was in the late 1980s. The dream has not materialized in time for her children, now 22 and 24, but with the state Highway Department breaking ground next week on the long-awaited Bruce Freeman Rail Trail between Lowell and Framingham, Woods says she is thrilled she will be able to take her future grandchildren out on the former train route.
“There were a lot of starts and stops along the way,” said Woods, assistant director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, a planning agency that has been involved in the project since 1986. “It was one of those things that took a few steps forward and stopped. But I always felt it was an important project for the region, so I was willing to plod ahead.”
The project to build the 25-mile trail is divided into three phases; the first is a 6.8-mile stretch from Lowell through Chelmsford and Westford. MassHighway awarded the construction contract for Phase 1 in August, and preliminary site work has started. In two years, the trail should be ready for walkers, bikers, and commuters.
“It’s been a real partnership putting this together,” said MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky, who will speak at the groundbreaking ceremony at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Chelmsford Community Center. “There’s been a lot of community support.”
The late Bruce Freeman, a state representative from Chelmsford, started researching the idea for a bike path in 1985, said his widow, Daphne. She said they had seen a successful path in California and thought it would be a nice fit in Chelmsford. “It was such a wonderful idea, and my husband saw that,” she said. “The streets really aren’t safe for families to go bike riding. That many years back, streets weren’t half as busy are they are today. Now it’s so treacherous.”
Freeman died in 1986 before the project got off the ground.
Daphne Freeman said it’s disappointing her husband will not be able to see families enjoying the trail, but she is happy it is finally becoming a reality. She said her family is grateful to the many residents who worked on the project for so many years despite setbacks.
“It’s very exciting and he’d be delighted,” she said. “I’m delighted for him.” She said former Chelmsford representative Carol Cleven, who succeeded her husband in the Legislature, pushed the project forward at the state level. In her first speech on the House floor, Cleven introduced a bill creating the path in Freeman’s honor; the bill was signed into law by Governor Michael Dukakis in April 1989.
But the project stalled several times for various reasons over the years. Woods said funding was always a problem, and many trail abutters were wary of the project. Most objections, she said, revolved around privacy and security near their property.
Woods said they have worked through those issues over the years by agreeing to install fencing and plantings to provide screenings. Concerns have also eased as rail trails have successfully opened elsewhere in the state.
She credited the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail with keeping the project alive, saying the group’s formation three years ago helped infuse new energy into the effort and kept the pressure on for funding.
The federal government is footing 80 percent of the $4.2 million project, with the state covering the remaining 20 percent.
Tom Michelman, president of the friends group, said it has thousands of supporters who are eager to see the project continue.”It’s a big milestone,” he said of next week’s event. “We certainly hope this helps us gain momentum.” Michelman said he is optimistic the design stage will continue for the rest of the trail.
The process has gone smoothly in some communities, but there has been some resistance in others. Abutters in Concord, for example, have voiced concerns over privacy and environmental issues.
Some residents also oppose plans for an asphalt surface for the trail.
Phase 2 stretches from Westford through Carlisle, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury. The last phase goes through Sudbury and Framingham. Funding for Phase 2 is on the state’s proposed transportation improvement plan for 2011.
Freeman said she looks forward to the day when the entire path is built. “It’s going to be a lovely thing for people to be able to enjoy,” she said.
The groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday will be followed by a celebration sponsored by the friends of the trail group.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.