Townsend group works to get rail trail on right track

By Katina Caraganis ,
Posted: 10/21/2012 06:30:30 AM EDT

TOWNSEND -- When their children were young, Bill Rideout and his wife would have to drive them to their friends' homes and elsewhere in town because accessibility for walkers and bicyclists in the community was minimal.

So when he heard about efforts to revitalize the rail bed of the Squannacook River Rail Trail, which runs parallel to Route 119, he knew he needed to get involved.

Rideout and other residents formed Squannacook Greenways so they could develop the trail into a community asset to be used by everyone, particularly walkers, runners and cyclists.

Rideout, the treasurer of the group, said it's been an ongoing process, and he's hoping it all comes together very soon.

One of the first and biggest hurdles to overcome was acquiring the right to build on the rail bed. Currently, the property is owned by the MBTA.

Rideout said originally the organization thought the town would sign the lease on behalf of the group, but they wouldn't because they were "concerned about the cost and legal liability."

As a result, the Department of Conservation and Recreation agreed to sign the lease on behalf of the non-profit, as long as the town supports the group in writing.

"That's what we're doing now, getting the letters saying the town supports us," said Rideout. "We did approach the town a few weeks ago and they weren't completely supportive, but they were leaning towards it."

Rideout says emergency response in the event of an accident, hep would be needed on the trail, and the selectmen are waiting to hear from the police and fire chiefs before ruling.

Converting the rail bed in Groton and Townsend is not a new idea. A private citizens' group began studying the possibility in 2002, and four years later a non-binding conversion referendum was approved by Townsend voters 1,021 to 259.

Between 2007 and 2008 a preliminary environmental and engineering study concluded there was no serious environmental or engineering obstacles to building the trail.

However, selectmen in Groton and Townsend voiced concerns about costs and liability, so committees in both towns were formed to study those aspects.

The 3.7-mile trail would originate at Depot Street in Townsend and follow the MBTA rail bed southeasterly to the Bertozzi Conservation area in Groton. About 2.8 miles of the trail would be in Townsend and the remaining 0.9 miles in Groton.

According to MassHighway calculations many years ago, the design cost for projects like the rail trail typically run about $100,000 a mile, and construction cost is about $1 million per mile.

Given that breakdown, the cost for the Groton section would be $990,000, while Townsend's would be between $3.08 million.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation, in connection with the Wachusett Greenways, also submitted cost projections for the project, and while they have not worked with similar projects in the past, they estimate it could cost between $50,000 and $100,000 a mile to build a stone dust trail.

The private group believed the Wachusett Greenways and DCR model was more favorable because it met the criteria laid out by the boards of selectmen.

According to an environmental study by Fay, Spofford & Thorndike in August 2008, projected preliminary construction costs for the 3.7-mile stretch would be approximately $4.2 million in 2013. The report would also help each town decide its willingness, readiness and ability to proceed with the project. The engineers also estimated that the design phase would cost about $450,000.

Before the MBTA can lease land to a city or town, according to the engineers, the community must agree to hold the MBTA harmless for any pre-existing environmental contamination, and they will not allow testing to be done before a lease is signed.

Additionally, a town may elect to purchase a five-year environmental insurance policy, for about $50,000 with the state paying half, to cover the cost if the trail is severely contaminated.

Townsend Town Administrator Andy Sheehan said there appears to be no direct impact to the town, but the Board of Selectmen in previous years has been split on whether to support the project.

"The selectmen voted years ago in favor of the project as long as it did not incur any costs for the town," Sheehan said.

A public forum has been scheduled for Tuesday to discuss the project, which Sheehan says will be a good indicator whether the selectmen can support the project as proposed.

"My personal thought is rail trails tend to be positive attributes for communities. Communities I've worked in in the past and the one in my own town (Acton), they're generally very positive assets to the town," Sheehan said.

Sheehan said for the town, the project would be neutral or positive, while abutters to the project may have a particular feeling one way or another.

"The committee will need to address privacy concerns, which are common but very easy to work through. Most of the trails I've been involved in are in denser areas and have more affected parties than this one," Sheehan noted.

One of the biggest obstacles the group has faced, Sheehan said, is a bridge that used to cross over the river near the town hall that was removed years ago, and never replaced. Because of the high cost to replace that bridge, the proposed length of the trail has been reduced.

Rideout says that ultimately, it's all about future generations.

"My daughters had friends in the center of town and we lived in Timberlee Park and we had to drive them. We have a little bit of sidewalk right in the center of town. My basic goal is to make Townsend and Groton more friendly for biking and pedestrians," he said.