New legislation may help rail to trail project proceed
By Caitlyn Kelleher

The members of the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee feel like they have overcome a major hurdle in establishing the trail with the recent actions of the state Legislature.

As part of the economic stimulus package passed on July 26, the Legislature included money to cover 50 percent of the cost of buying environmental liability insurance to cover the land.

"We've talked to the board of selectmen about this issue and this and is exactly what they insisted on," Bill Rideout, a member of the committee, said. "It protects the town and the (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) MBTA."

The committee is working to get the town to lease 2.4 miles of track from the MBTA from the Townsend/Groton line to Depot Street.

The MBTA has not been willing to cover the environmental liability when a town leases the land from them. Town officials were not willing to cover that expense or take the risk because the MBTA was not willing to let the town test the land for contamination before the lease was signed.

"This means that the issue of environmental liability is not going to be the one that stops the trail in Townsend," Rideout said. Rideout said it appears the state will cover 50 percent of the cost of insurance so his organization will cover the other half.

The Legislature agreed to fund $500,000 each year in matching grants to towns to help them purchase environmental liability insurance for the development and maintenance of a rail trail. The application process has not been determined yet.

The insurance's main purposes is if during construction any Brownfields - contaminated areas - are found, the insurance money will be used to clean up the area, Rideout said.

"We will only buy (the insurance) if the town decides to build (the trail)," Rideout said.

The insurance policies will have coverage limits of at least $3 million per incident and a maximum deductible of $50,000 per incident, according to the legislation.

According to the legislation, any town that purchases this insurance would exclude from their lease the language holding the MBTA harmless for environmental contamination.

Selectmen were concerned about the lack of responsibility by the MBTA and were going to require that line be removed from any contract they signed.

The group is working to acquire donations to pay for an engineering feasibility study, to hire a lawyer to prove there is clear title to the land and to buy the insurance.

"(The engineering firm) is going to be the group of professionals that will determine if the project is possible," Rideout said. "We believe we can prove (clear title) through the help of this lawyer."

During a selectmen's meeting this spring, the board agreed that there needed to be proof on the ownership of the proposed trail's land.

"This was a critical step for our project, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead, including raising funds for a professional feasibility study," Steve Meehan, chairman of the committee, said.