Critical juncture for rail trail plan Phase 2 votes loom in 4 towns

By John Laidler
Globe correspondent
Boston Globe April 2, 2006

For two decades, local officials, bike enthusiasts, and others have pursued a vision of creating a recreational trail along an old rail line that stretches from Lowell to Framingham.

Now, the proposed 25-mile Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, named after the state representative from Chelmsford who championed the project before his death in 1986, is moving into a critical period that will see at least a portion of it become reality.

Perhaps by late this summer, the state is set to begin construction on the first phase of the project, the development of a 7.5-mile leg of the trail from Lowell through Chelmsford and part of Westford.

Town meetings in Acton, Carlisle, Concord, and Westford, meanwhile, are set to vote in the coming weeks on spending requests that are needed for the preliminary design of the project’s anticipated 13-mile second phase, which would run from the intersection of routes 225 and 27 in Westford through Carlisle, Acton, Concord, and into Sudbury, ending at Route 20.

Acton’s Town Meeting convenes tomorrow, Concord’s April 24, Carlisle’s May 1, and Westford’s May 6. The proposals call for the design funds to be drawn from the towns’ community preservation funds: $175,000 in Acton, $160,000 in Concord, and $20,000 apiece in Carlisle and Westford.

A third phase, currently being studied by the state, would extend the trail 4.5 miles from Sudbury to Route 9 in Framingham.

Beverly Woods, assistant director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, sees significant momentum building for the project, attributing part of it to the active support it is getting from the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 2002.

“Here’s a project for which a shovel of dirt has not been turned, and they have over 1,500 families participating,” she said of the Friends group.

Emily Teller, a Friends board member from Westford, said that through the group’s activity, state agencies know “there are citizens in each town eagerly looking forward to using the trail and really wanting it built soon.”

Teller said the trail will help local businesses and “will enable people to connect to a fabulous recreational asset. . . . It’s designed for families, wheelchairs, jogging, cross-country skiing, walking bikes, and, when allowed, equestrian participation.”

Tom Michelman of Acton, another board member, said the trail would be a “big deal” for Acton. About 4.6 miles of the route would run through the town.

“The trail parallels Nashoba Brook, offering easy access to this area we didn’t have access to before,” he said. He said the trail would also provide a boost to businesses along routes 2A and 27, and allow for access to various recreation and conservation areas.

But not everyone is embracing the project. In Concord, abutters have raised concerns about safety and a loss of privacy, according to Bob Armstrong, a Concord resident who is president of the Friends group.

Armstrong said that security and privacy issues can be addressed by placing barriers such as shrubbery, trees, earth berms, or fences where requested along the trail.

Woods said that only about 10 percent of the 300 or so abutters involved in the first phase expressed concerns, and that those were largely addressed through the use of natural barriers or fences.

“There are over 13,000 miles of rail trails in the US at present . . . in over 1,300 towns,” Armstrong said. “Once these trails have been completed, they become the best-loved things in town. None of the rail trails have ever been closed down and reverted back to no use. They become real assets.”

All 25 miles of the proposed trail are inactive. The state owns approximately 20.5 of those miles. The stretch it does not own is the Phase 3 leg of the trail. The state will need to negotiate the purchase of that land from CSX Corp., the freight rail company that owns it, according to Armstrong.

The state Highway Department is covering the full $5.6 million cost of design and construction for phase one, with 80 percent of that federal money and 20 percent state money, according to Woods, whose agency gave the project’s first phase its initial approval.

Phase 1 construction was originally set to begin about a year ago, but that date was set back when the state decided to redesign that phase.

Woods said the state was concerned that the original design called for removal of materials from the rail bed, which would have required costly environmental tests.

She said that based on her discussions with the Highway Department, she anticipates construction could be underway by late summer or early fall.

Phase 2 has been placed on a list of transportation projects to receive federal and state funding in fiscal 2008 by the agency that allocates those funds for metropolitan Boston. But under new state rules, local communities must cover the cost of preliminary design.

The spending requests in Acton, Carlisle, Concord, and Westford would allow those communities to meet their preliminary design costs.

The trail sections in Carlisle and Westford for which design money is being sought are both only about a quarter-mile each. But trail advocates say those segments provide a crucial link between the phase one and phase two trail segments.

Woods said that for various reasons, those small Carlisle and Westford parcels were not included in either of the phases, but that her agency and officials from Carlisle, Westford, and Acton are moving to have them added to Phase 2.