On winter’s path, seeing their way clear

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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In years past, Lexington resident Mike Yudis said, he enjoyed the opportunity to go cross-country skiing along the snow-covered Minuteman Bikeway.

But there’s a bit of a wrinkle in his winter recreation this year; the path has been cleared too well, leaving it unsuitable for skiing.

“It’s plowed a lot better this year for walkers,’’ Yudis said while taking a recent stroll along Lexington’s portion of the recreational trail. “I like cross-country skiing, which is the downside.’’

But for fans of dry pavement, after problems plowing the path in Lexington last year, a new trial program using funds raised by bicycle advocates is showing early signs of success this winter.

“So far, so good,’’ said Peggy Enders, the Lexington Bicycle Advisory Committee’s chairwoman. “We’re doing much better than we did last year.’’

The new program is the latest change in a variety of approaches that Lexington and the bikeway’s other hosts, Arlington, Bedford, and Cambridge, take toward plowing Minuteman, as well as Somerville’s handling of its Community Path, which connects with the regional bikeway.

Bedford doesn’t plow the last mile of the Minuteman path. Arlington has been using town coffers to pay for plowing since 2007. And Somerville makes sure the Community Path, which joins the Minuteman in Cambridge, is kept clear all winter.

Difficulties with plowing the path in Lexington arose last winter after residents and bicycle enthusiasts approached selectmen to ask whether the board would be willing to use town money to pay for it. The board declined, citing the town’s tight budget, but agreed to a trial program in which the Department of Public Works would hire a contractor to clear the path, using funds raised by a private group, the Friends of Lexington Bikeways.

But before the contractor could go to work clearing the bikeway, the town wanted its sidewalks to be cleared. As a result, Enders said, it would sometimes be five or six days before the bikeway was cleared, and by mid-January last year the town and bicycle advocates suspended the program because of growing concerns about ice and snow on the path.

In an effort to fix the problem this winter, the Friends of Lexington Bikeways is making its own arrangement with a contractor to plow the path, with the approval of the town.

Abe Shenker, chairman of the bikeways group, said he’s hoping the group has raised enough money to plow the path for the rest of the winter.

“Weather is unpredictable, but assuming we have normal snowfall, we think we have enough to complete this year,’’ Shenker said.

But he also said his group feels strongly that Lexington needs to pick up the tab for the plowing in its annual budget.

“The town needs to be encouraging alternative modes of transportation for many reasons,’’ said Shenker, “and we believe it is just a matter of time before Lexington catches up with the times.’’

But at least for the rest of this winter, according to the chairman of Lexington’s Board of Selectmen, Norman Cohen, there is no money in the budget to plow the path.

“Like every city and town in Massachusetts, the budget is very tight and there’s not very much room for new endeavors,’’ Cohen said.

Plowing the path in Arlington costs about $34 per mile per storm, said Jeff Roth, a member of Arlington’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. Over the course of a winter, that adds up to a few thousand dollars, Roth said; he considers it well worth the cost to keep the space accessible for recreation, bicyclists commuting to work, and children going to school.

“It’s such a drop in the bucket, but such a positive thing in the town,’’ Roth said.

Clearing the path in Arlington is a bit easier than in Lexington, Roth said, because its stretch does not have the posts and gates that Lexington has at intervals along the path. Without the obstacles, Roth said, a snowplow has easy access to clear the path.

During the first winter Arlington plowed the path, the bicycle committee tracked its use and found that as many as 100 to 200 people per hour were using it at peak times.

But in colder weather, a thin layer of ice often persists on parts of the path even when it has been plowed, making it less conducive for bicycling and better suited for walking, Roth said.

Because of the large number of people who walk the 1-mile Community Path in Somerville, said its DPW commissioner, Stan Koty, the city plows it throughout snowstorms.

“The bike path is extremely important,’’ Koty said. “We treat it like a street.’’

Bicycling along the path in Davis Square recently, Medford resident George Teshu said the path is usually clear from its start on Cedar Street all the way through Somerville.

“I think they’ve been doing a pretty decent job,’’ Teshu said.

But the need for a clear path may vary from location to location.

In Bedford, Selectman Mark Siegenthaler, the board’s chairman, said the town has not heard any sort of concerted interest in plowing the final mile of the bikeway.

“There really hasn’t been a demand,’’ he said.

Siegenthaler said access issues in Bedford, such as gates along the path, could also make town efforts to plow the path more complicated.

Donald Blake, a member of Bedford’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, said he also hasn’t heard much interest in plowing the local path.

“I don’t think people would use it that much if it were plowed,’’ Blake said.