The Select Board’s public information session on the proposed state-funded Minuteman Bikeway extension Thursday was replete with information.
But many of the more than 75 residents attending had already staked out positions, and once the floor was opened for questions and comments, the event resembled a dress-rehearsal for the Nov. 14 special town meeting when the matter will be decided. Some two dozen residents who questioned and commented were pretty much evenly split, for and against.
The two-mile project, in design for more than a decade and including a shared-use path and drainage improvements on Railroad Avenue, was scuttled literally at the last minute at Annual Town Meeting March 28 when a vote authorizing the Select Board to acquire easements failed to reach a minimum two-thirds approval.
“Contrary to a long-held belief, the town discovered it didn’t have clear title” to the entire railroad bed, explained Select Board Chair Emily Mitchell, who presided at the event. The easements needed are spread throughout the route, and some are temporary, she added.
After confirming that state funds would likely be available in coming years, the Select Board agreed to retry the same article at the special town meeting on Nov. 14, which will take place for the first time in the Bedford High School gymnasium in anticipation of hundreds of voters.
“We received many messages of support and concern,” Mitchell told the meeting. “We considered the success of previous articles and the many hours residents worked. We decided to bring back the one article that didn’t pass.”
Opponents prefer the extension route – the so-called Reformatory Branch Trail – in its current natural state.
Preparing for the revote, the Select Board has scheduled meetings with project abutters as well as last week’s session at Town Hall. A second information program is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Oct. 17; that one will be on Zoom.
Thursday’s 30-minute presentation was carefully choreographed. Mitchell alternated with her colleague Shawn Hanegan. A panel of professionals alongside included three managers from the Department of Public Works: Director David Manugian, Transportation Manager Jeanette Rebecchi, and Michael Sprague, engineer. Also seated were an engineer from VHB, the firm that designed the proposal, and Town Counsels George Hall and Nina Pickering-Smith.
“We know this topic has engendered strong feelings.,” Mitchell said before reading the town civil discourse guidelines “which should guide our discussions at every public meeting.” She added, “If we cannot maintain a civil atmosphere, we will bring the meeting to an end.”
A civil atmosphere prevailed over the ensuing two hours, although there was plenty of disagreement once the question-and-answer segment began.
Hanegan began the story in 1962, when the town purchased the right-of-way from the Boston & Maine Railroad. He stressed that the project includes not only Railroad Avenue drainage but also an improved crossing where the street elbows toward John Glenn Middle School; an underpass to enhance safety for foot and bicycle traffic where the trail meets Route 62; and accessible parking lots.
Mitchell presented a project chronology, emphasizing that “all along this period, Bedford residents and staff have led the way in moving this project forward.” The town’s comprehensive plan and bike and pedestrian master plan both list “connectivity” as a top goal, she pointed out. This project is fundamentally about access,” facilitating safe travel among neighborhoods.
Town meeting voted in 2010 to extend the bikeway’s asphalt, Mitchell said. The current plan is for a 12-foot paved path with three-foot stone-dust shoulders on either side. Mitchell noted that “in many areas the newly constructed trail will look similar as it does today.” She said the intent is to provide “safe biking and greater accessibility for people with mobility limitations.”
Mitchell said the extension not only will improve pedestrian and bicycle access from the center of town to western conservation land, but also “maintain access to existing and new fiber optic lines and water mains.”
The presenters displayed photographs of some current liabilities, including muddy spots along the trail and the Concord Road crossing at “an unexpected location between intersections.” A photo of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which serves towns to the west, showed that “the tree canopy has been re-established in just a few years.”
If the article fails, Hanegan explained, “access to the trail will be in ambiguous legal state,” and the town might have to take legal action to access underground utilities. The ancillary projects such as the Railroad Avenue drainage could be funded locally, Hanegan allowed. The cost of that drainage work is now estimated at $3.2 million and is likely to increase, he said.
The presentation was designed to address several of the objections that have been raised to the project during and since Annual Town Meeting. The interscholastic cross-country teams have blazed a new route along Elm Brook, Hanegan said.
He noted, “We have all local, state, and federal permits, including endangered species.” Proposed tree-clearing and “grubbing” is less impactful than what occurs often during private residential teardowns, Hanegan said. Parking lot plans include extensive landscaping and additional trees will be provided to abutters on request, he said.
But other points were contested during the question period, which was moderated by Hall. One of the ground rules required single questions; several residents returned to the back of the line and spoke twice and even three times.
Karl Schwartz, a Concord Road resident who has challenged aspects of the plan for years, said the extension is a state-imposed “transportation corridor” supplanting a “recreational trail.” Mitchell replied that the extension “has been a Bedford-led project since it started and we will always have a seat at the table.”
Lea Devereaux said she and her children hope to join her wheelchair-bound husband on the paved trail. Other speakers testified to seeing wheelchairs on the current natural trail. “Disabilities are not always visible.,” said Nancy Wolk, who added she needs the asphalt surface.
Molly Haskell, a member of the Arbor Resources Committee, said the plans indicate construction easements as many as 25 feet outside the corridor. Rebecchi replied that the state requires easements that won’t necessarily be used; none extends more than five feet.
Patty Carluccio was skeptical about commuters parking at Lavender Lane and picking up the bikeway there, when parking is available further east near the Depot. Jaci Edwards talked at length about what she called excessive speed by some cyclists using the Minuteman. Even now “there are cyclists speeding on the dirt path,” she said. A paved extension “will be crowded, it will be unpleasant.” A Selfridge Road resident said the trail is already diverse; “if this is paved, it’s going to be less accessible.”
A few questioners wondered about metrics for success. “This is about accessibility. For more people more of the year. We don’t have a set goal for that,” Hanegan replied. Other topics included the impact of the Concord Road tunnel on drainage and safe bikeway access from the north side of Concord Road.
A Railroad Avenue resident noted that the shared-use path will cross residential and commercial driveways. Rebecchi pointed out that children walk and ride on the street now; the path will “provide safe space off the road.” Ken Larson, longtime property owner there, said, “Railroad Avenue is a dangerous road.”
Dawn Lafrance-Linden, a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee, pointed out that the Reformatory Branch Trail “is not a natural trail –it is an old freight railroad, a human artifact that was made to connect people to places and to move things around.”