Hitting the trail, finally

By Rita Savard, rsavard@lowellsun.com
August 25, 2007

CHELMSFORD — It was praised by politicians, protested by bicyclists, then put on a shelf and forgotten — for some 20-odd years.

An idea that began in the mid-1980s to build a 25-mile bike trail from Chelmsford to Framingham is finally under way, according to the Massachusetts Highway Department. But supporters of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail project say they’re going to hold off celebrating until the shovels hit the dirt.

“I’m elated to hear the news,” said Daphne Freeman, widow of former Chelmsford state Rep. Bruce Freeman, for whom the trail is named. “But it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe. We got to the point where we weren’t about to hold our breath waiting for it to happen.

” This time, it’s going to happen, assures MassHighway.

Yesterday, MassHighway announced it has awarded a construction contract to S&R Corp. of Lowell, to begin building Phase 1 of the trail — a 6.8-mile stretch beginning at the Lowell-Chelmsford town line and ending in Westford. The first phase, estimated Advertisement at $4.2 million, should break ground sometime next month.

“The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail has benefited from a history of strong local support,” said MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky. “Along with the project’s local stakeholders, we look forward to the start of construction on Phase 1 this fall.”

Rewind to 1983, and some original planners of the project say, well, they’re “starting to feel a little old.”

Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch, then the community planner for Chelmsford, was listening to Billy Joel and sporting a longer hairstyle.

“I was hoping then to ride the bike trail with my kids,” Lynch laughed. “They’re now 21 and 18. Now, hopefully, my grandchildren and I will be able to ride it.”

The Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail say the project was the culmination of many ideas, and above all, a labor of love.

Bruce Freeman took a keen interest in transforming the retired Chelmsford railroad tracks into a bicycle path.

“He loved riding his bicycle,” his wife recalled. “But he felt that the roads in town were just getting too busy to accommodate bicyclists. He wanted something nice that everyone could enjoy.”

But Freeman died in 1986. When Chelmsford resident Carol Cleven took his place in the House of Representatives, she filed a bill dedicating a 25-mile recreational path in Chelmsford, that extended through Westford, Carlisle, Acton, Concord, Sudbury and ended in Framingham. During her maiden speech on the House floor, Cleven asked that the trail be named in memory of Freeman.

But along the way, a state budget crisis left the project without funding.

There were other snags too. Some die-hard local bicyclists protested building a trail, saying it was an attempt to keep them off the town’s main roads, Lynch recalled.

Then plans to build the rail trail just seemed to lose steam.

Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen credits a consistent swell of community support for keeping the project alive. Work will begin behind Cross Point Towers in Lowell, with the majority of the trail carving its way through Chelmsford and Westford. Building will include lane stripping, earthwork and landscaping.

“After 22 years waiting for Phase 1 construction to start, we’re ecstatic that we are finally at this point,” said Cynthia McLean, a member of the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.

The duration of Phase 1 is expected to take two seasons. Phase 2 will continue the path in Westford to Sudbury. Phase 3 will finish the path in Sudbury and Framingham.

Daphne Freeman no longer rides a bicycle, but is looking forward to the day she can walk the trail. “Bruce knew this was something Chelmsford needed,” she said. “He would have loved to see the vision finally becoming a reality.”

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