Experts: No engineering, environmental issues will likely hold up rail-trail plan

By Hiroko Sato,
Article Last Updated: 09/29/2008 06:43:03 AM EDT

GROTON -- Experts hired by Groton and Townsend to study the idea to create a 3.7-mile bike/walk trail over the town border say there are no environmental or engineering issues that could hinder the project.

Now, the question is how much -- and how quick -- the towns will be able to raise money for the project, according to the Squannacook Rail Trail Committee.

The Squannacook Rail Trail Committee released the preliminary environmental and engineering assessment of the proposed trail. The trail would run along the abandoned railroad tracks between the Bertozzi Wildlife Management Area near Route 119 in West Groton and Depot Street in the center of Townsend.

The committee, which is composed of Townsend and Groton residents, received a $20,000 grant for a feasibility study on the Townsend portion of the project from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation last October. Also in October, Groton Town Meeting approved the allocation of $10,000 in Community Preservation Act money for the same study on the Groton portion.

The committee selected Fay, Spofford & Thorndike, a Burlington-based engineering company, to conduct a preliminary environmental and engineering study of the trail. The company designed the Nashua River Rail Trail in Ayer, Groton, Pepperell and Dunstable, and the Nashua Heritage Rail Trail in Nashua.

The study focused on points of concern brought by abutters, residents and town officials. They include wetland issues, buildings along the trail that may have historic value, railroad ownership and designing of the trail that would be narrow in some parts, Committee Chairman Steve Meehan said.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority currently owns the railroad bed, and the Groton and Townsend governments have copies of a drafted agreement with the MBTA allowing them to use the property for 99 years for $1, said Assistant Committee Chairman Bill Rideout.

The consulting firm reported that there are solutions to all of the concerns raised and the project is feasible, according to Meehan. The company estimates the project cost to be about $4.2 million. Groton selectmen have already formed a fundraising search committee and asked the Townsend selectmen to do the same, Meehan, who lives in Townsend, said. Townsend selectmen unanimously voted to do so on Sept. 23.

"We're looking to ensure full federal and state funding, and we're working to formulate a plan to mitigate long-term maintenance costs to the towns," Meehan said in a statement.

"With traffic increasing on Route 119, the road has become more unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists with every passing year," Meehan said. "With gas prices on the rise, the need for an alternative to Route 119 is increasing."

Groton Selectman Peter Cunningham said he is optimistic that the trail would be well perceived once constructed, just as the Nashua River Rail Trail that opened in the early 2000s after more than 10 years of planning.