Annual Town Meeting on Monday, March 28, will have the opportunity to complete a process that began more than 15 years ago, by approving a $1.5 million community preservation expenditure for easements that will clear the way for extending the Minuteman Bikeway almost two miles to the Concord line.
There are about 40 abutters who own land over which the proposed rail trail will run,” explained David Manugian, Director of Public Works.
The funds are permitted under community preservation criteria since the project is under the category of recreation and open space. The $1.5 million will not impact property taxes, since the community preservation funds are already collected, with a percentage matched by state money.
Approval will be a green light for construction of the long-planned extension to begin in the fall. If voters deny the allocation, Manugian said, “it will put at risk current and future state Transportation Improvement Plan projects because MassDOT wants to see a commitment that municipalities will carry through with their plans for transportation improvements.”
This extension along the so-called Reformatory Branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad began conceptually in 2005 with a feasibility study. Town meeting voted in 2010 to advance a paved trail to the final design stage, and two years later the town applied for state construction funding. The Department of Transportation approved the use of state and federal funds in 2014.
Since then the biggest challenge has been to connect the trail with the current bikeway terminus at Depot Park. The railroad bed along that 1,700-foot stretch was sold to private interests decades ago. The solution was the installation of a shared-use path, necessitating some land-taking along commercial and residential properties.
Over the years there have been only isolated comments opposed to paving the trail, usually from neighbors who enjoy the relative solitude. Minuteman, in contrast, has often been cited as the nation’s busiest bicycle trail.
The town Bicycle Advisory Committee and Transportation Advisory Committee have been closely involved throughout the planning process, and this week the respective committee chairs, Mark Bailey and Scot Shaw, reiterated their points of advocacy as they approached the final hurdle.
In a written document, the committee chairs pointed out that the paved bikeway will be more usable since it will be clear of mud and snow. Similarly, the improvement will “expand accessibility to less-skilled bikers, walkers who are deterred by mud and ruts, and wheelchairs.”
The advocates also said the project “improves community wellness, equity, and inclusion; expands regional connections; and increases safety,” especially along Railroad Avenue and the intersection of the bikeway and Concord Road, which will be accommodated by a tunnel (box culvert) under the highway.
“The deal has always been that the town would pay for design costs and right-of-way acquisition from abutters; for our $1.5 million, we get to leverage $10 million of state funds,” the two committee chairs wrote. “This planning has always been in full public view, with the town meeting vote, Select Board hearings, and plans presented to the public for comment.”
Manugian noted that “right-of-way approval for federally funded projects must meet a very high review standard that had not been needed in any previous state or local initiative, and it identified property ownership issues unnoticed by the town or abutting private property owners since the railroad gave up its rights to the Reformatory Branch over 50 years ago.
“As the town obtains the rights to the Reformatory Branch for recreational purposes, it also wants to secure the rights to its infrastructure within the same corridor,” he added. “If the funds or authorization for the takings are not approved, then the corridor will remain in partially private ownership. There will be no rights for a paved path, unpaved path, or the town’s infrastructure.”
It was also pointed out that most of the takings are for land the owners didn’t even realize was theirs.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763