Selectmen still leery of Rail Trail proposal

By Matt Lynch

TOWNSEND -- The Board of Selectmen heard a pitch over a year ago for a Rail Trail on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) right-of-way along the Squannacook River. However, it wasn't very receptive to the idea, especially if it was going to cost the town money.

The Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee believes it may have found a way for the town to avoid any financial contribution to the project, a key point in its presentation to the selectmen at their recent meeting.

Stephen Meehan, committee chairman, introduced John Hendrickson and Jennifer Shemoway, of the Fay, Spofford and Thorndike engineering firm, to present the proposed trail. The committee contracted the firm after receiving a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Recreation and Conservation (DCR) for a professional study to determine the feasibility of such a project.

The proposed trail is a 3.3-mile stretch of mostly asphalt, 10-feet wide along most of its length. It would run from the Bertozzi Wildlife Management Area in Groton to Depot Road in Townsend, parallel to the Squannacook River, said Hendrickson.

"We're hoping this will eventually connect to the Nashua River Rail Trail so people can ride their bikes to the Ayer train station or the Nashua City Hall."

Shemoway described the various features the engineering firm put in place to protect not only sensitive areas, but those traversing the trail.

The only sections that will not be paved are those that run through historical or sensitive areas, such as Townsend Harbor and protected environments. The trail will narrow to a width of eight feet in those areas. Those spots will be covered with a synthetic gravel material that will allow bicycles and wheelchairs to move through the area without creating ruts.

To protect bicyclists, a three-foot-tall wooden fence set three feet off the edge of the paved area will run the length of the trail, including a top designed to "snag" handle bars to further protect any errant cyclists.

The existing railroad ties would be removed to clear the way for any paving, with the exception of a section near the Reed Homestead.

The estimated cost for the trail is $4.3 million, said Meehan, but there's an existing federal earmark for $4 million that the town could take advantage of if it moves swiftly. If selected, the town would have to come up with, at most, 10 percent of the total cost.

"I (went) on record, two years ago, that this board would not support any rail trail that costs the town money," said selectmen Chairman David Chenelle. "If the town is required to come up with (funds), they would have to come through private donations and fund-raisers."

Meehan said they're aware of it, but the earmark has the potential to cover the entire cost of the project.

As proof he cited past earmarks for other trails. The cost is an estimate based on inflation calculations over the next five years, he said.

The selectmen thanked them for their presentation, but were unsure if such a project would be in the town's best interest considering the necessary 99-year lease with the MBTA that would accompany it. In particular, they said they had concerns over maintenance costs and liability to the town in the event of something catastrophic affecting the trail.

There will be a public information meeting about the trail on June 12, at 7 p.m., at North Middlesex Regional High School. A detailed draft plan is available at beforehand.