Creating new Rail Trail has its ups and downs

Groton, Townsend working together on latest trail
By Pierre Comtois, Correspondent
Posted: 07/23/2010 07:34:40 AM EDT

GROTON -- Undaunted by setbacks, the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee continue to explore avenues to eventually transform a .9 mile of an old railroad line in West Groton into a well-maintained walking trail connected to a further stretch in Townsend.

The move to create a rail trail out of the disused railroad bed gained momentum a few years ago when efforts by Townsend residents began to bear fruit and united with their counterparts in Groton.

Moving quickly, the Board of Selectmen established the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee and sponsored its application for $10,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to hire a consultant. The consultant would conduct an environmental and engineering assessment study of the town's stretch of the railroad bed.

Intended to help planners estimate the final cost of completing the proposed rail trail, the study would include civil, environmental, structural and wetlands engineering specifications, and an overview of applicable state regulations.

On the Townsend side, residents there managed to have an appropriation of $20,000 approved by residents for its share of the project.

An RFP (Request For Proposal) was issued last year and Burlington based Fay, Spofford & Thorndike was hired to conduct the engineering study.

Its work concluded, the firm came up with a proposed design plan that called for, among other things, retention of trees and brush along the trail to provide adequate screening for the backyards of local property owners whose lots abut the path.

The only serious consideration dealing with the project was possible contamination along the former railroad bed that would have to be cleaned up if construction of a trail moved forward.

If an agreement on the clean-up issue could be settled, the town would enter a 99-year lease agreement with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), owner of the rail line.

But there is the rub.

So far, the Groton and Townsend committees have not been able to come to an agreement for transfer of the lease. That, and a general slowdown in the economy, have dried up much of the available funding that members had counted on to pay for construction of the trail.

Adding to the difficulty are federal regulations requiring that the trail be accessible to the handicapped. Resultant costs of paving are putting the whole project beyond the financial capability of the two towns.

Looking for alternatives, the two committees happened upon the DCR, the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, which possesses funding for the construction of trails bedded with crushed stone, a material that members were informed was approved by the government.

Word on the possibilities open to them came from Wachusett Greenways representative Edward Yaglou who was invited to a joint meeting of the Groton and Townsend Rail Trail Committees last week.

Yaglou told committee members that the crushed stone trails built in the Central Massachusetts communities that he serves were funded by the DCR, He explained how they are maintained and made available for different kinds of users.

Subjects Yaglou was asked about at the July 8 meeting included state regulations, financing, environmental issues related to the MBTA, and equestrian access to the trails.

Currently, with ownership of the rail line still in the hands of the MBTA, no work has been done on the proposed Squannacook Rail Trail but with encouraging news from Yaglou, members of both the Groton and Townsend Rail Trail Committees have no intention of slowing their efforts to create what has become in recent years a popular avenue for public recreation.

The next joint meeting of the two committees is scheduled for Aug. 12.