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Bike trail finds its way to national fame

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie M. Peters
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2008

Massachusetts has a new hall-of-famer among its ranks.

The Minuteman Bikeway, an 11-mile paved recreational path running between Bedford and the MBTA's Alewife Station in Cambridge, was recently named as the fifth inductee to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

The national recognition confirms what's already well known in the area, given the estimated 2 million annual users - a mixture of cyclists, joggers, skateboarders, baby strollers, and dog walkers - who at times create a log jam on the 12-foot-wide path.

It was the Minuteman's combination of history - passing near the scene of some of the Revolutionary War's earliest battles - and service to the community, however, that caught the conservancy's attention for this honor, said Katie Test, a spokeswoman for Rails-to-Trails, based in Washington, D.C.

"The Minuteman's place in history definitely makes it stand out among rail trails," she said. "And it is one of the most-used commuter trails across the United States." The newest hall-of-fame bikeway is featured in this month's Rails to Trails magazine, and on the group's website, railstotrails.org.

Members of the bicycle committees in Cambridge, Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford that collectively manage the path are thrilled by the recognition, and celebratory plans will be a primary agenda item at a meeting slated for tonight.

"It's great to be recognized. . . . It's one of the most popular rail trails in the country, and so far it's the only rail trail in the Northeast to be recognized," said Jack Johnson, chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee.

To highlight its honor, the conservancy will provide markers, about the size of parking signs, to line the path indicating Minuteman's status as a Hall of Fame trail. The local committees hope to pick a design for the signs as well as a date for a fall celebration tonight, said Joey Glushko, the Arlington Department of Planning and Community Development's liaison to the group.

On days with agreeable weather, the bikeway attracts throngs of users, including, as gas prices continue to climb, an increasing number of bicyclists commuting to work. Many of them take the path to Alewife Station, hitch their bike to one of the 250 spots on racks out front, and ride the Red Line to their jobs.

Yet the success of a path that runs through residential neighborhoods and town centers was once doubted, said Tom Fortmann, a Lexington bike enthusiast who drafted the path's proposal in the mid-1970s.

At the time, there was talk of extending the Red Line past the T's Harvard Square Station to Route 128, a plan that sparked uproar in many nearby communities, including Lexington, Fortmann said.

"Of course no one wants it ending in their community, because that's where the parking lot goes," he said. Fortmann seized the opportunity to instead suggest building a bikeway along the existing railbed through a process known as railbanking. It allows a railroad to remove tracks and other equipment from a stretch of rail corridor that would be used for alternative transportation, such as a bicycle path, while preserving the property for possible use by the railroad in the future, according to Rails-to-Trails, which often steps in to help communities realize such arrangements.

Fortmann gained support from Arlington's then-town planning director, Alan McClennen Jr., who involved Cathy Buckley Lewis, a planner on the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization's transportation staff, and the three became the driving force behind the proposal.

However, the project hit a series of roadblocks, including getting the Boston and Maine Railroad to abandon the tracks and raising support from some neighbors who feared the path would attract crime, that slowed its completion for more than 15 years, Fortmann said.

To prove the bikeway would be valuable, Buckley Lewis even stood on street corners in the towns and counted the number of cyclists at the intersections so she could supply project numbers, she said.

Construction on the pathway finally began in 1992, beginning at Alewife and extending west, and it was completed in 1993. The path was immediately successful, attracting more than 30 times the number of users that Buckley Lewis had projected, Fortmann said.

"Eventually it all happened, and it's been a phenomenal success," Fortmann said.

"One of the arguments used against it in the early days was nobody would use it, adults don't like bicycles," he said, noting some local officials had predicted "we'd have a swath of pavement that no one would use."

Stephanie Peters can be reached at speters@globe.com.

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