Groton-Townsend rail trail work a possibility

By Anne O'Connor, Correspondent
Posted: 10/22/2010 07:33:01 AM EDT

Plans to build a recreational trail along the rail corridor between Townsend and Groton have been stymied by lack of funding. Things may be about to change.

Two committees, one from Townsend, the other from Groton, have been holding joint meetings, looking for ways to build and maintain the proposed Squannacook River Rail Trail without using town funds.

Members have visited other rail trails, spoken with state officials and contacted a preservation society. Many issues must be addressed in the financial-planning process.

Before any construction can begin, the land must be leased from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Society. Liability issues have to be resolved, ties and rails removed and the infrastructure repaired.

Then the trail needs to be graded and a surface installed. The expenses will not end once the trail is built. It will need to be maintained.

Financing might all be figured out soon, according to Peter Cunningham, the chairman of the Groton committee. It will mean getting quite a few ducks in a row.

First comes control of the land. "We're hoping the DCR would actually sign the lease," he said. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is not in a position to take on expensive projects, but could use their in-house legal services to help make the trail a reality, he said.

Because railroads were not known for taking care of the environment, problems can crop up during construction of a rail trail, Townsend member Bill Rideout said. This makes liability insurance essential. If the state holds the lease, they are responsible for liability issues.

Once the land is leased, funds for preparing the site must be secured. Federal highway funds can be used because the project is already on the state Transportation and Improvement Program list through the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, Cunningham said.

The sticking point has been the 20 percent local matching funds TIP requires. Rideout brought a new suggestion to the table.

Through networking with other rail trail advocates he learned about the Iron Horse Preservation Society. This West Coast group removes rails and ties from old rail beds and grades the land leaving it ready for surfacing.

They are "paid" by taking the rails and ties for salvage. Because the highway grants allow for "in-kind" matching funds, the work performed by the society could qualify as the local matching funds, Rideout and Cunningham said.

In the spring, committee members are planning on visiting nearby trails worked on by Iron Horse to see how their work holds out over the winter.

The committees first considered how to finance a paved trail. A stone dust surface is a less-expensive alternative and could be built without any town funds, Rideout said.

The stone dust surface may also be more attractive to abutters since the cycling traffic is slower than on pavement and a more rural character is preserved he said.

An "as yet undefined" group could be formed to enter into an agreement with the state to build and later maintain the trail, Cunningham said, eliminating ongoing expenses for the towns.

Similar efforts have worked in the state. The Mass Central Rail Trail, running from Sterling to Oakham, has stone dust sections built and maintained by a non-profit group, the two men said.

The advocates are hopeful construction can begin soon. "If everything comes together possibly next year it might start. You never know," Cunningham said.

Another member is needed for the Townsend committee. Interested people should contact the town clerk or go online to