Trail project moves forward
A decision by the MBTA to allow towns to lease an abandoned railroad right-of-way is an important move forward for the proposed Bay Colony Rail Trail, but a spokesman for supporters of the recreational path said that much more work is needed in the design, planning, and approval process for its 7-mile stretch through Needham, Dover, and Medfield.
“This is a nice step on the path,’’ said Tad Staley, president of the Bay Colony Rail Trail Association. “There are still a lot of other questions that need to be answered. We’ve got a lot of work to do to flesh it all out.’’
Rail-trail committee members in Needham and Medfield expect that votes in their communities will be taken next spring on individual leases. But Dover is still in the process of putting together a feasibility study, and it’s too early to determine whether a proposal will go before Town Meeting next spring, a member of the town’s rail trail committee said.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority also has authorized a long-term lease with Newton on a right-of-way for a 1-mile pedestrian path known as the Upper Falls Greenway. The walkway would follow an inactive rail corridor that extends south from the MBTA’s Green Line D Branch through Newton Upper Falls. The path would have access to the commercial areas on Needham Street for shopping and commuting.
Robert Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer, hopes the city will sign off on a lease this fall. He said city staff will draft an agreement for the Board of Aldermen that would allow the mayor to enter into a long-term lease with the MBTA for the property.
“It really starts the ball rolling,’’ Rooney he said. “It’s a major milestone by the T. Nothing could happen without this vote.’’
A working group made up of area council members, the ward alderman, and city staff has been looking at design, access, and public safety issues, Rooney said. The group has also met with a nonprofit organization, the Iron Horse Preservation Society, to look into converting the right-of-way into a basic walking path. Iron Horse pulls up the tracks and sells the steel to pay for the work.
Rooney said because there is so much steel along the rail bed, Iron Horse told the city it may be able to convert the path and also provide modest amenities such as benches, signage, trash barrels, and stone dust.
The path would run parallel to Needham Street with access from the Upper Falls neighborhood on the west side and from the shopping and office buildings on the east side. The park would extend from approximately Easy Street at the north end and continue to the Charles River.
Under the authorization approved by the MBTA’s board of directors, the communities will be responsible for all maintenance and liability. While the lease is at no cost to the communities, the MBTA reserves the right to enter into licenses or leases with utility and telecommunication companies to generate revenue for the state transit agency. The lease also contains a reversion clause that allows the MBTA to take back the property at no cost, should it be needed for another transportation purpose.
The MBTA has entered into leases with 30 other municipalities that have resulted in more than 100 miles of new or planned trails. The authority’s general manager, Jonathan Davis, said the lease agreements promote the state’s policy of fostering healthy transportation choices, providing links to transit, and connecting residential areas with schools and employments centers.
The Bay Colony trail would cross seven roads along the 7-mile route, Staley said. The Needham part would go 2 miles from Needham Junction to the Charles River. It would pass under High Rock Street, go past the town forest and continue to the Charles River Peninsula. In Dover, the trail would go 3.5 miles from the Charles River through the center of town and conservation land to Hunt Drive. The Medfield stretch would go 1.5 miles from the Dover line to Ice House Road, near the Kingsbury Club and the town’s Senior Center.
“Each town will vote and decide and operate it independently,’’ Staley said.
Staley, a Needham resident, said the town will likely work on a long-term lease agreement over the next several months, and place it on the Town Meeting warrant for approval in the spring.
“The hope for the Town Meeting is to have a clear plan, well understood costs, and a source for funding,’’ he said.
Christian Donner, chairman of Medfield’s Rail Trail Study Committee, said while the lease authorization is a small step, he hopes it shows residents that the project is moving along.
He said the town will likely vote on a lease in next spring.
“It’s a great step forward in that it will raise confidence among us and the public that it will happen,’’ he said. “My hope is it will make it easier for me and my peers on the study committee to bring it to completion.’’
Greg Hills, a member of Dover’s Rail Trail Committee, said in an e-mail that the town is “purely in the exploratory phase of the rail trail effort, methodically studying and considering the range of pros and cons of converting the unused rail bed to a recreational path.
“The town’s Rail Trail Committee, in collaboration with town departments and community members, is currently developing a feasibility study for the town’s consideration, which will be presented and discussed at the May 2013 Town Meeting,’’ he said. Hills said Town Meeting in May approved up to $5,000 for the study.
“The MBTA’s decision to authorize a potential lease with Dover provides welcome clarity on one of a number of elements of the feasibility study that Dover is exploring, but does not change the timing or nature of Dover’s independent decision-making process,’’ he added.
“It is currently too soon in the process to predict what, if any, request related to the rail trail will be put to the town for a vote at the next year’s Town Meeting.”
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at email@example.com.