Friday, September 22, 2006
What is it like living near a rail trail?
Music from choir practice in the First Religious Society sanctuary wafted downstairs into Union Hall as Alan Cameron welcomed the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail (BFRT) to Carlisle for their September 13 meeting. Cameron, of School Street, is the town's representative to the committee. Wednesday evening's meeting featured a panel of four residents from the Nashua River Rail Trail (NRRT) communities who were invited to discuss experiences with the NRRT in the almost four years since it has been opened.
The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is a proposed multi-use trail of 25 miles from Lowell to Framingham. It would be built on the bed of the 25-mile route of the former Old Colony Railroad, first built in 1893. Carlisle's portion of the Rail Trail consists of a quarter-mile section located just south of the Route 225-27 intersection on the Westford town line.
The Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail are a group of residents from all seven of the towns through which the trail runs, and they advocate for the development of the Rail Trail at the local, regional and state level. Nationwide, the 20-year-old Rails to Trails Conservancy is a group with 110,000 members supporting trails totaling 13,000 miles in length. The Friends group was energized after meeting with the Conservancy president in 2002, and began working actively to extend the already approved Phase I construction. The Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail are now incorporated as well as officially a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Information about meetings is available on the web site: www.brucefreemanrailtrail.org.
The Rail Trail was the idea of a former Massachusetts legislator from Chelmsford who served from 1969 until 1986, when he died of cancer. Bruce Freeman fought hard for this shared-use rail trail along the old Framingham-Lowell rail line. Representative Carol Cleven took over his seat, and, in her first speech to the legislature, she proposed naming it for Freeman as a memorial.
Nashua River Rail Trail opened in 2002
The Nashua River Rail Trail is a former railroad right of way that travels 11 miles through the towns of Ayer, Groton, Pepperell and Dunstable. The trail offers a ten-foot wide paved surface for the entire length, and a five-foot wide gravel equestrian path for seven miles of the trail from Groton Center to the New Hampshire border in Dunstable. The entire trail is open to pedestrians, bicyclists, inline skaters, wheelchairs and cross-country skiers. It was officially opened and dedicated on October 25, 2002.
Panel describes community perceptions of Rail Trail
The four invited panelists provided a good cross-section of abutters, town officials, trail users and maintainers. They were State Representative Bob Margraves, a Groton abutter; Bob Lee, town engineer for Pepperell; Peter Cunningham, Groton Selectman; and Nikki Belmonte, member of Friends of Willard Brook and chair of the NRRT Committee. Cameron introduced each panelist in turn and asked them to say a few words about their own personal experiences.
First was Rep. Bob Margraves, the state representative from Groton and the surrounding towns of Ayer, Dunstable, Pepperell and Townsend. "Being an abutter has personally been a pleasure," said Margraves. He has had virtually no problems living next to the trail and is personally gratified to see mothers pushing strollers and families enjoying the trail together. When asked for his advice to abutters, he replied, "Don't draw attention to yourself." He doesn't have a fence or "No Trespassing" signs posted or any other negative display in his yard and trail users respect his property.
Bob Lee was able to discuss the Nashua River trail from his perspective as a town official involved with it, and a regular user of it. Lee has seen a positive economic impact on Pepperell. A clock tower and benches have been installed at the central intersection, and Rail Trail parking is now provided. "We recently saw the opening of the Rail Trail Ice Cream Stand," he chuckled. "A town poll in 2002 listed the rail trail as the number one favorite attraction by a two to one margin," said Lee, to applause from the audience. The Pepperell Police Department views the trail as more of an asset than a liability.
Groton Selectman and NRRT abutter/user Peter Cunningham sees the Rail Trail as a way of drawing the communities together. He believes "Most worries are misplaced. The Rail Trail has not been a problem for Groton." Cunningham calls the NRRT an asset to the community and a source of increased property value. His biggest frustration as part of the planning group is dealing with Mass. Highway. "A rail trail is not always on the top of their agenda."
Nikki Belmonte is a Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation. She is also an NRRT volunteer and a regular user of the trail. "I live just a block away from the trail," she said, viewing it as added value to her neighborhood.
Belmonte has been working on accessibility to the Rail Trail with a focus on wheelchair access and the use of adaptive bikes. Her most recent project has been helping to prepare for Rail Trail Day on September 30, featuring fun and entertainment for all and a way to attract new rail trail fans.
After the panelists were finished, a lively Q & A session showed the seriousness of purpose throughout the audience. One attendee considered himself an avid conservationist and was dismayed recently when he was accused as a BFRT supporter of wanting to put a "super highway" though a natural wildlife area. Panelists responded that this was once a railroad with all the associated noise and soot, whereas once built, the trail will be used by bicycles, hikers and birdwatchers, all with minimal effect on wildlife.
Belmonte has some advice for highway crossings. "Put rumble strips on the trail to warn rollerbladers of a highway crossing so they don't roll out into the road," she advised. Panelists urged that trail crossings be at right angles to the road rather than diagonal for better sight lines and the quickest crossing time. Belmonte also warned that portajohns can become a home to vagrants, at least in Ayer, and police have cooperated in monitoring the sites. On the plus side, some sections of the trail have been adopted by agencies who regularly pick up trash.
Trail surface matters
The panelists were unanimous in recommending that the surface be paved. Engineer Lee said that stone dust may initially be adequate but does not hold up to heavy use. A solid surface is especially needed for rollerblading or even pushing a baby carriage. The only problem may be tree roots which can undermine the surface unless surrounding trees are cut back. One last bit of advice for rail trail planners was to create a memo of understanding with each town regarding mowing, cleaning and if needed, portajohns. Otherwise maintenance is overlooked once the construction phase is successfully completed.
Carlisle recently voted at Town Meeting to appropriate $20,000 for their share of the Rail Trail design. The Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail anticipate that a construction contract will be awarded this fall and they are looking forward to "breaking ground" for the first phase of construction sometime next spring.
© 2006 The