Rail-trail groups create 2-town plan

By Anne O'Connor, Correspondent
Posted: 02/18/2011 08:14:45 AM EST

TOWNSEND -- After five years of hard work, members of the rail-trail funding study committees from Townsend and Groton have come up with a plan to build a nearly 4-mile recreational trail for a minimal cost to the towns.

The proposed trail runs between Townsend center and the Bertozzi Conservation Area in Groton. The task of the two committees was to study the fiscal implications to the towns to create the Squannacook River Rail Trail on the rail bed owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Members of the committees were appointed by the boards of selectmen. They included both proponents and opponents of the proposed trail, Bill Rideout, a member of the Townsend committee, said. The report for the two boards of selectmen is dated Dec. 16, 2010.

A stone dust trail to be built and maintained by an independent nonprofit is the least expensive option the committees examined. By salvaging the rails, enlisting the Department of Conservation and Recreation and using volunteer labor, there could be no construction, environmental liability or maintenance costs for either of the towns.

"The thing we have going for us is there's another group that does exactly the same thing," he said. The Mass Central Rail Trail is a stone dust trail, built and maintained by Wachusett Greenways.

The building cost is minimal. Iron Horse Preservation Society, a nonprofit, has constructed trails where the construction cost was covered by the salvage value of the track, the report on the plan said. The rail bed between Townsend and Groton has good rails and their value can mitigate construction costs.

Another concern for the towns is the expense of environmental liability. A licensed site professional examined the route for obvious signs of problems in 2008. "We got the green light. There's a very, very low risk of environmental liability," Rideout said.

If DCR agrees to lease the corridor for a future non-profit group, the state will assume the liability for environmental problems along the corridor.

The funding study committee is optimistic about the state's participation but have not received a commitment. "They see it as a public/private partnership," Rideout said.

Once a stone dust trail is built, maintenance can be done by volunteers. A wheelbarrow and something to pound the stone dust surface flat is all that is needed Rideout said.

The committees also addressed the concerns of abutters. The Townsend Historical Society and other neighbors in Townsend Harbor want the rails to remain between their buildings and the water.

By routing the trail onto a sidewalk through this area, the concerns can be addressed, the trail can cross South Road at an existing traffic light and potential flooding problems can be avoided, the report said.

The state has offered to build sidewalks on Route 119 as part of a repaving project if Townsend pays for sidewalk design. Rideout said $100,000 was set aside by the town years ago for the design and never used.

About 900 feet of sidewalk, less than a fifth of a mile, would need to be built to route the trail away from backyards. The trail can still be built without a sidewalk, Rideout said, but the committees prefer this option.

Members of the committee attended the Feb. 1 Townsend Board of Selectmen meeting to present the report. The board voiced support for the suggestion of routing the trail onto the sidewalk for the short section.

The two committees also studied the costs of working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's Highway Division to construct a paved trail. Under this option the towns would need to lease the land from the MBTA and would incur the expense of environmental liability. The state would cover half the projected $50,000 insurance cost, with the remainder the towns' responsibility.

Construction costs would also be higher. Depending on the source of funding, Groton could be responsible for $18,000 to $99,000 and Townsend for $56,000 to $308,000. Annual maintenance costs could run about $1,500 per mile.

The committees recommend a stone dust trail built and maintained by a non-profit group with DCR holding the lease for the corridor as being the least expensive option for the towns if a rail trail is built.

The two town committees plan to stay together until the project is a go, Rideout said.