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At last, rail trail is more than a dream along the Assabet

The Marlborough-Hudson section of the 12.5-mile Assabet River Rail Trail, a project 15 years in the making, is complete. The trail has been deemed a success in the two years it has been open, and officials in towns along its path say the number of people using it has outpaced their hopes.

But this 5.8-mile leg of the project, budgeted at $2.8 million, cost $6.5 million to complete, according to the Massachusetts Highway Department, which is overseeing the project.

Now work on the rest of the trail is gaining momentum, with design commencing on the 3.5-mile Maynard-Acton stretch.

"It's been a long haul," said Carolyn Britt, a planning consultant for Maynard. "We have overcome a number of hurdles."

But more hurdles remain. More than a mile of the 3.2-mile section in Stow remains to be secured, and that section is needed to link Marlborough and Hudson with the Maynard-Acton stretch. However, the farmer who owns most of that land says he has no intention of allowing bikers or walkers to travel through his apple orchard.

"Stow is still the gap in the whole project," said Tom Kelleher, an Acton resident who is president of Assabet River Rail Trail Inc., a private nonprofit group that promotes the trail.

And the danger of ballooning budgets remains. Much of the extra cost of the Marlborough-Hudson stretch of the trail arose from the need to clean up contaminants discovered during excavation of an abandoned railroad right-of-way.

The Maynard-Acton portion of the trail is expected to cost $4.7 million, MassHighway said. Construction is scheduled to begin in two years.

As designers plan for the Maynard-Acton section, supporters of the trail are focusing on the positive. Although expensive, they say, the Marlborough-Hudson section of the trail is getting more use than expected.

They also said they can reroute the trail to avoid uncooperative property owners in Stow and don't foresee contaminated soil being a major problem again.

"It's been a little bit of a surprise that it's got a wider variety of people using it than anticipated," Kelleher said. "Fifteen years ago, we thought it would be a bicycle trail. Mothers with strollers are using it. Retired people are walking on it."

"It's changing people's quality of life," said Michelle Ciccolo, Hudson's director of community development.

Hudson police counted 80 people an hour passing one point on the town's portion of the trail on a Sunday in late April, Ciccolo said. "It's a huge number. This is a trail that is in its infancy."

Britt emphasized that the trail will give Maynard residents direct access to the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, a major recreation area.

"It will make a huge difference," she said. "For a town like Maynard, with such dense development, it's such a resource."

Not everyone welcomes the trail. Andrew Martin, whose family owns Honey-Pot Hill Orchards on Sudbury Road in Stow, said he doesn't want the 12-foot wide trail to cut through his orchards for three-quarters of a mile, as proposed.

"You could give us a million bucks and we still wouldn't do it," he said.

The 200-acre orchard uses the gravel path that runs along the former rail line as an access road, Martin said.

He is also concerned that bicyclists and walkers will be tempted to grab a few apples as they pass through his fields.

"Most people who are bikers and walkers are very good people," Martin said. "But there's a mindset of, 'I can only take one; it's just one apple.' But if 5,000 people take them, that's our living."

Martin suggested that the trail bypass Honey-Pot Hill by continuing along another unused rail line in Hudson, wrapping around Lake Boone through Sudbury and then rejoining the original path again in Stow.

Trail supporters discounted that idea. Instead, they are considering ending the trail at Honey-Pot Hill, diverting bicycles and walkers to Sudbury Road and continuing the trail on a 2-mile stretch of private land. Stow officials are in the process of securing an easement from owners Robert and Annette Albright.

Two years ago, Stow received $135,000 in federal funds for easements on most of the Albright land, said Don Rising, Stow's representative on the Assabet River Rail Trail Intermunicipal Steering Committee.

Rising said he expects Stow Town Meeting members to vote on an agreement for an easement on the rest of the Albright property in December. A few other small parcels of property in Stow need to be secured, depending on the route the trail takes around the orchard, Rising said.

He and other trail supporters say they don't expect crews to find large amounts of contaminants that could result in millions in cost overruns for the next sections of the trail.

But they acknowledge that no one can know for sure until digging begins.

If contaminants were dumped in Stow's section, Rising said, they would probably be contained at a small former train station in Gleasondale Village.

"I don't expect contamination to be an issue anywhere, unless there has been a rail accident where a tanker car spilled," Britt said. "But there have been none of those in Maynard."

Engineers might not need to dig up contaminants, even if they find them. MassHighway spokesman Erik Abell said that because of the budget overruns in Marlborough and Hudson, the agency revised its policy of digging up land for rail trails statewide.

Now, he said, the agency's first goal is to pave and build on top of rail beds, capping contaminants that can remain underground.

Kelleher said the cost increases for the Marlborough-Hudson portion of the trail were not as dramatic as many thought. The national average cost of converting old railroad track beds to trails is around $1 million per mile, he said.

So Marlborough-Hudson's $6.5 million bill for 5.8 miles was only around 12 percent over the national average. MassHighway's $4.7 million budget for Maynard and Acton's 3.5 miles is about a third more expensive than the national average.

It's not surprising that Massachusetts would have higher costs for trails, compared with other parts of the country, Kelleher said. More significant is that there is money for trail construction, he said.

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