Bridge work snags on link to bike path

Some see repairs as step to trouble

By Ben Terris and Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondents / April 5, 2009
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Left to rot after the trains stopped running, a trestle bridge that spans the Charles River from Newton to Wellesley has long worried residents who feared for children trespassing onto its gaping, splintered ties. Yet a plan to fix the span through the state's $3 billion bridge repair program - and convert the structure into a walkway - now has people divided.

Some Newton Lower Falls neighbors fear the repairs are the first step toward creating a bike path from the bridge to the Riverside MBTA stop that will divide the neighborhood physically and psychologically.

"If they fix the bridge, they'll lay down the bike path, and our entire neighborhood will change," said Scott Lanciolti. "People will walk through our backyards, eight-foot fences will spring up, and the openness of our neighbor hood will disappear."

With state and federal money finally available for much-needed infrastructure improvements, supporters say, efforts to expand the region's recreational network are also getting a boost.

But some projects - including a 1.2-mile bike trail near Alewife Brook in Arlington - aren't sailing through as easily as their proponents might wish.

"Bike paths in general are tricky," said Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. "People have strong feelings about them."

The DCR has 12 bike projects across the state in either planning or construction stages, including in Newton, Arlington, Belmont, and Watertown. A proposed path in Franklin is in the discussion phase, though no money has been allocated, Fox said.

"We've never had this much going on in one season," she said. Though some federal stimulus funds will be used to pay for some projects, Fox said, the boom is a convergence of projects that have been in the works for years.

The DCR and the state Highway Department plan to convert an abandoned Boston & Maine railway corridor into a recreational path to link Watertown with existing paths along the Charles River. Design work on the $1.2 million path is expected to be done this fall, with construction to begin next spring.

Work is also set to begin on a new 3.5-mile bike and pedestrian path linking Brighton Street in Belmont to Davis Square in Somerville. Design for the $5 million pathway is set to go out to bid this summer, said Fox.

With the promise of federal stimulus money on the horizon, the DCR is finishing design work on a trail linking the Minuteman path at the MBTA's Alewife Station in Cambridge and a bike path by the Mystic Valley Parkway.

But Arlington officials have been in a lengthy standoff with the state over parts of the "greenway" plan, especially a 10-foot-wide bike path and boardwalk across wetlands that are prone to sewage overflows.

"The town is concerned we don't want a public bike path in an area where there is sewage," said Clarissa Rowe, chairwoman of the Arlington Board of Selectmen. "We think it's going to be a wonderful project for the town," she said, but "we have to be careful because the history of DCR's stewardship in Arlington has not been great."

Proponents of the bike trail in Newton have yet to present a proposal to the Board of Aldermen, but a group of neighbors is already fighting the bridge repairs. They have filed a lawsuit contending that when the city abandoned the railroad, there was an informal agreement to give the land to the neighbors.

The DCR declined to comment on the litigation other than to say that it would continue with the plans as scheduled. The bridge repairs would cost about $400,000, half paid by the state and the other half split between Newton and Wellesley. The agency is still waiting for approval from the conservation commissions of each community.

Not all residents feel that the effects of bike path would be negative. State Representative Kay Khan, a champion of the rail-to-trail conversion, lives right beside the railroad.

"Not only would this connect Newton Lower Falls with a new development at Grossman's lumber yard in Wellesley, which would be good both for shoppers and store owners, but potentially more important is what this says in terms of big picture," Khan said. "There is a reason that the state is promoting so many rails-to-trails conversions. It has to do with supporting a healthy lifestyle and with reducing your carbon footprint. Now when people of one neighborhood want to go to another, they can walk or bike instead of getting in the car."

The Newton Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force has pressed for the bike path's completion, but is aware of the concerns of some residents.

"It's not unreasonable for the abutters to be worried," said the group's vice chairman, Sean Roche. "Every kind of path like this in the history of man has had people worry about it. We hope and feel that these neighbors will see that their worst fears will not be realized and that the path will be a benefit to the community."

The DCR's $3 million project by Alewife Brook includes building a sidewalk for bikes from Broadway to the Mystic River Bridge on the Somerville side of the brook, bringing a much-needed connection to one of the most-heavily biked corridors in the state, said Fox.

Though the state will build and maintain the bike path, it crosses property owned by Arlington, requiring town approval for an easement before the project can move forward.

Rowe said Arlington's biggest concern has been width of the path. The original plans called for a 10-foot-wide path, with a wooden boardwalk to cross an area near Sunnyside Avenue that frequently floods and becomes contaminated with sewage. The town also objects to the proposed boardwalk's handrails, saying they would obstruct those who wished to get down to water's edge, said Rowe.

Last month, DCR Commissioner Rick W. Sullivan sent a letter to the board detailing refinements his agency will make to the project. They include shortening the boardwalk, reducing its width, lowering its height, and removing the handrails. The path would also be narrowed between Broadway and the Arizona Terrace condominiums.

Rowe said the board is waiting to see plans that reflect these promised changes before voting on the project. Provided funding has been released, and Arlington officials sign off on the project, the DCR hopes to get the design finished and put out to bid by July for completion by summer 2011, said Fox.

"It's a dream come true in terms of the big picture," said Jack Johnson, chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee. The committee feels the path will be a "great asset" to the town, especially to those living nearby, and has expressed its support for the overall concept to the selectmen, he said.

But details and changes to the plan, including the location of the path's crossover into Somerville and its width, will require a second look before the committee renders its final opinion on the project.