Cost stalling Rail Trail

By Matt Lynch
Article Launched: 08/15/2008 08:40:41 AM EDT

TOWNSEND -- Rail trails have become a popular addition to area towns in recent years, notably the Nashua River Rail Trail that runs through Pepperell, Groton, Ayer and Dunstable. They provide a scenic path for walking or biking and protect historical ground, such as the abandoned railway that runs through Townsend.

A Rail Trail has been proposed for the town, but sits in a state of limbo, partially unsupported by potential abutters of the trail and completely unsupported by the municipal government, if such an endeavor requires town money to complete or maintain

Unfortunately for the Squannacook River Rail Trail and its proponents, that condition is presently unavoidable; the town would need to budget for the maintenance component and possibly a small part of the construction cost, according to Steve Meehan's presentation to the Board of Selectmen in early June.

At that meeting, Selectmen Chairman David Chenelle told Meehan that he was against town money being spent on the project whatsoever and the remaining members were in agreement.

According to Greg Barnes, that hasn't changed in the weeks since.

"The (board) has taken a position that it will not support moving forward with the Rail Trail if it will cost the town any money," the town administrator confirmed.

However, the selectmen do support the "feasibility analysis," Barnes added.

During the June presentation, Meehan suggested a $4 million government earmark that would cover most of, if not all, of the total cost to construct and pave the trail. Construction is estimated at $4.3 million but the maintenance costs are not covered through state money and a viable solution to that issue remains out of reach.

If funded and completed, the proposed 3.3-mile trail would run from Depot Road to the Bertozzi Wildlife Management Area in Groton and would pass by the historical district: The Cooperage, the Reed Homestead, Harbor Church and the Grist Mill. It would provide access to many local area shops and even the Nashua River Rail Trail itself, as well as a direct hike to the train platform in Ayer.

However, there are those who oppose the project for other reasons.

"There's always concerns about things that go into your back yard," said Bill Rideout, Rail Trail Committee member. "People have fears that it will bring a lower class of people into their back yard; people who might cause trouble."

He pointed out that there has not been much of that problem in nearby towns along the Nashua River Rail Trail, adding that the people who frequent that trail do their best to keep it clean in all ways.

David Mullen, Main Street resident and would-be abutter to the proposed Rail Trail, was inclined to agree.

"I think it'd be good for the community, really." Mullen said. "To me, it's not going to hurt anything. It's good for the kids."

He did not think any ne'er-do-wells would become regular fixtures, though he acknowledged that his views on the Rail Trail were likely in contrast to many of his neighbors.

A giant white sign decrying the Rail Trail hangs on the front of the home of Bill and Elaine Martin, a sentiment echoed in numerous smaller red signs along both sides of Main Street, just past the Reed Homestead heading into town.

"I would rather see a sidewalk in town than the Rail Trail," Ronda Collette, another possible abutter, said. She is not opposed to the idea but acknowledged that the construction would eliminate a major portion of her backyard, though only the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority-owned land that she has been utilizing, adjacent to the abandoned railroad tracks.

Collette is legally blind and said she would use the trail to walk to the grocery store, but would much prefer a sidewalk.

"(It) would be a lot more economical, but you wouldn't get state aid," she said.

That state aid may not available much longer anyway. Because the proposition has yet to receive the green light, it has been unable to lay claim to that earmarked money, a total Rideout now estimates at less than $1 million. The North Central Rail Trail has been using it, he explained.

He admitted that money was an issue from the beginning, though they never intended to ask the town to pay for building the Rail Trail in any way. The maintenance costs are a different problem, but Rideout said there were ideas in play about establishing a trust fund, opened with the proceeds from a potential fund-raiser. Ideally, the interest accrued would cover the upkeep costs.

For several of the potential abutters, however, money is not the issue. There are still concerns over the effect the trail would have on property value.

"We understand how people feel," Rideout said, acknowledging that the studies on the possible impact had yielded mixed results.

Steven Silva's house is nearly on top of the tracks and he is not keen about the idea of work going on that close to his home, including the possible removal of the tracks themselves. Like Collette, he would prefer to see a sidewalk.

"It'll go right through my back yard, obviously," he said. "I don't see the purpose of it. All that trouble for 3.8 miles doesn't seem to be worth it." (Editor's Note: The proposed Rail Trail is estimated at 3.3 miles, not 3.8.)

For more information about the Squannacook River Rail Trail, please visit the project's Web site at