Plans for regional trail are gaining ground

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / August 30, 2009

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A recreational path starting in Franklin and running west through Bellingham and beyond could begin to take shape this fall thanks to the efforts of local citizens groups.

The Franklin Citizens Rail Trail Committee is considering options for fixing up the Southern New England Trunkline Trail, which is part of a larger swath of former railway land that could one day form a recreational trail for walkers, bicyclists, and horseback riders extending all the way to Palmer.

The path, which has suffered in recent years due to use by motorized vehicles and illegal trash dumping, has been owned by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation since the 1980s, said Ronald Clough, a forest supervisor for the agency who is working with area groups in their efforts to spruce up the trail.

“There’s local interest in getting it more developed for recreational use,’’ Clough said. “There’s no funding even for design at this point, but we’re moving along at a low-budget rate.’’

The Franklin committee came together in January, and this spring Bellingham’s Conservation Commission established a bikeway committee; its members have walked a portion of the trail and met with state officials to discuss potential construction options.

“In times of duress, people look to things like this where they don’t have to spend a lot of money, and can go out and spend some time in nature,’’ said David Labonte, coordinator for Franklin’s citizens committee. “It’s a feel-good project for most everybody.’’

Over the next couple of months, Clough said, his department plans to bulldoze the path to even out sections where motorized vehicles have made depressions up to 3 feet deep.

“It’s up and down like the waves on the ocean - you can’t even walk in comfort,’’ Labonte said.

Clough said the state also plans to cut back brush along on the trail, install gates on Spring Street in Franklin and on Lake Street in Bellingham to prevent motorized vehicles from easily entering, and possibly paint larger stones to make them more visible to individuals who bike along the dirt path.

There is also discussion of creating a parking lot at the beginning of the trail on Grove Street in Franklin. “There’s nowhere to park, and that’s basically the trailhead - it goes west from there,’’ Labonte said.

In the long term, Labonte said, his group might propose the creation of a 10-foot-wide paved path for bikers and walkers alongside a 5-foot-wide dirt path for horseback riders, as well as the construction of some tunnels and bridges at busy roadways to allow for a contiguous path.

The group received one estimate that it could cost from $300,000 to $900,000 per mile to fix up the path, Labonte said.

“This is not an easy undertaking - this is going to take years and years,’’ he said.

The Citizens Rail Trail Committee has met with Franklin’s Conservation Commission and provided a map of the area and an overview of its plans, according to Nick Alfieri, the town’s conservation agent. The town is exploring grants, he said, but noted that “it is harder to find money this year.’’

The committee also plans to meet with Franklin’s Public Land Use Committee at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, in Room 205 at the Municipal Center.

The Franklin group hopes to raise money with the help of the Grand Trunk Trail Blazers, a Sturbridge-based nonprofit organization that is working to connect various paths across the western part of the state.

The group’s president, Patrick McGarrah, said that he hopes to develop the “Titanic Rail Trail’’ to run all the way from Franklin to Palmer, a distance of more than 50 miles. The name, he explained, harkens back to early last century, when the president of the Grand Trunk Railway, Charles M. Hays, intended to develop a railway across New England. However, Hays perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and work on the railway beds was never completed.

McGarrah views an extended, multiuse recreational trail as a potential tourism boon.

“People are willing to drive to the trail based on the length. So if you could make the trail longer, you’ll get more use out of it.’’