By Kim Siebert MacPhail
DPW Director Rich Warrington and Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) engineer Trish Domigan briefed Bedford’s Bicycle Advisory Committee about the status of plans for the Minuteman Bikeway extension on Wednesday night. The extension, once completed, would continue the Minuteman Bikepath from Depot Park all the way to the Concord Line along a former railroad bed known as the Reformatory Branch. Funds for the design of the extension, using Community Preservation monies, were approved by Town Meeting two years ago. Funding for the project itself, estimated at $2M for construction and surface paving, is anticipated from the State’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
At issue with the extension plan, however, is that connecting the existing Minuteman Bikepath to the Reformatory Branch is expected to be difficult for a number of reasons. Two possible routes are under consideration: Railroad Avenue or, alternatively, a pathway along the Elm Brook through conservation land. Either option would bridge the gap between the Minuteman and the Reformatory trails, but neither is without its own set of complications.
“Part of [the problem] is an issue with Railroad Avenue—essentially from the terminus of the bikepath now [at Depot Park] to the “S” bend of Railroad Ave,” explained Warrington. “That section we have a design for, but it’s somewhat intrusive and it’s going to be fairly costly to bring up to standard—upwards of $600,000 just for that segment of Railroad Ave.
“We have a lot of industry there, we have a lot of continuous curb cuts there that will make a very difficult sidewalk and curb situation,” Warrington continued. “We’re looking to get the bikepath moving as fast as possible without jeopardizing the timing, but Railroad Ave. appears to be the issue that could delay it.”
Domigan added, “The concerns that the State has are that you’re going to have to reconstruct the roadway and reconstruct the sidewalks and the drainage system on Railroad Ave. Everything is fairly substandard. [It will take a lot] to make it meet State and Federal standards, not only for bike lanes on the road or bike shoulders/shared use, but also for ADA compliance, pedestrian[s] and vehicular use.
Warrington and Domigan told the Bicycle Advisory Committee that the people at the State level are “fond of the project” and are familiar with the territory because many of them use the Minuteman and Reformatory paths for commuting or recreation. Additionally, the Minuteman Bikeway is one of the most popular and heavily ridden pathways in the state and is, therefore, a major rail bed conversion success story.
Perhaps because of this success, the State has been notably hard-nosed in its scrutiny and at an earlier stage of the project than is usual, Warrington and Domigan reported.
“The Minuteman Bikeway is the biggest bikepath right now in the state—they want to make sure that any extension of it actually has a lot of community outreach and a lot of support,” Domigan said. “We’re compiling all the things the State has asked for as part of the process and meeting with you tonight to let you know what the status is.”
“The State has asked the Town to provide community outreach,” Domigan added. “Meet with all the neighborhoods, the residents and also the [commercial] properties—and gain consensus before they’ll move the project forward. They want to know that [the Town and the residents] are behind the project.
The alternative to working through all the problems presented by Railroad Ave. is an “off road” route along Elm Brook that would eliminate the avenue from the extension plan. Bicycle Advisory Chair Terry Gleason described the route the trail presently takes:
“[It goes] from South Road,. . .abuts the Elm Brook Conservation land and then comes up to Mongo Brook, makes the curve and connects to the [Reformatory Branch] path,” Gleason said.
Domigan and Warrington reported that they had met with members of the Conservation Commission for an informal conversation about this option. “They do have concerns [about impacts to their resource area there], vegetation and a few other things” Warrington said of the Conservation Commission members’ reactions. “The Conservation Commission is trying to keep this as pristine as possible. . . ,” Domigan added. “It’s the Elm Brook Conservation land.”
“To get the 10 to 12-foot bike path, even in gravel, [is problematic]—but for a short section like that we would request the State to give us somewhat of a variance on the standards,” Warrington continued. “The important thing to note is there is quite a bit of bike traffic on that [path] already, so there wouldn’t be change of use—there might be [only] a degree of change,” Warrington said. “This [plan] is in its infancy right now. It’s something we’re looking at.”
Warrington went on to say that the Safe Routes to School program is also looking at this section of town—the path and Railroad Ave.—as a connector to the middle school/high school campus.
Margot Fleischman, Selectman liaison to the Bicycle Committee, said that the condition of Railroad Avenue necessitates doing something fairly drastic, no matter what other issues might be coincidental.
“Eventually, we’re going to have to confront these thorny issues,” Fleischman said. “You may find that people are a little allergic to the idea of paving [this Elm Brook path]. It was not an un-contentious thing to talk about paving the Minuteman extension—but that [did] pass. . . . It may not be easy as you might hope.”
“We would never propose [the Elm Brook path] to be paved,” said Warrington. “We would remove the surface that’s there and replace it with stabilized soil [which is more durable than stone dust].
“The State understands how much use the Minuteman [bike path] has,” said Domigan. “If there was an alternative consideration for Railroad Ave., for the avid bikers—the on-road bikers—to use this as a link between the two [paths], they may consider [allowing the use of stabilized soil instead of pavement on the Elm Brook part of the path.]”
“So, is it the comments from the State that are motivating you to look for an alternative— because the project as we presented it included the Railroad Avenue portion and they’re thinking that’s something they don’t want to wait on?” Fleischman asked.
“No,” Domigan replied. “[The reason we’re looking for an alternative is] that if you only did the off-road section of the extension. . .and [eliminated] the Railroad Ave section, you could submit funding applications to the State [now], and that would be a shorter timeframe to get that under construction. [With Railroad Ave. included] there would be a lot of. . .negotiation with land owners. It would just take a longer period of time.”
Bicycle Committee Chair Gleason summed up the situation this way: “I think we’re realizing that this is a rock and a hard place because we have issues here and issues there and the State is saying this and the Conservation Commission is saying that. It’s a terrible situation right now because either [option] is going to be a problem.”