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Group Breaks Ground on Bruce Freeman Rail Trail

Tue August 05, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

It has taken more than 20 years to conceptualize, dream, plan and carry out — long even by the longest of construction standards. And it’s not close to being finished.

Yet, when it is completed, it will wind down from Lowell, a thin, black ribbon of asphalt, twisting south all the way to Framingham, meandering through six other towns along the way — Chelmsford, Westford, Carlisle, Acton, Concord and Sudbury.

Last fall, Massachusetts Highway Department Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky was joined by local state legislators and the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail — a citizens group of area volunteers — to break ground on the $4.24 million first phase of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.

“Expanding our network of bike trails is an important priority of MassHighway, and I’m proud that we’re able to get this project moving,” said Paiewonsky at the groundbreaking. “Creating more and better bike trails not only benefits cyclists and allows walkers to enjoy the outdoors, but also improves our multimodal transportation options and enhances our recreation opportunities. I am truly grateful to all of our partners who have worked so hard to move this project forward for so long.”

The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail has gone from longtime dream to reality over what used to be abandoned train tracks.

Three Phases, One Town at a Time

The project has benefited from strong regional support from the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments (NMCOG), legislators and local officials. Each praised the two-decade dream.

“Through decades of effort, the partnership between local trail groups, government agencies and the private sector will transform what was once rails of rust into ribbons of green,” said State Senator Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln. “The Freeman Rail Trail will connect us not only to our history but also to family and friends by providing safe public space to enjoy each other’s company and nature.”

“This is a complicated project that required great vision and strong cooperation amongst the participating communities, so it is historic and exciting to begin,” added State Rep. Corey Atkins, D-Concord.

“Aside from knowing how many people are going to enjoy the bike path for years to come, I take an added personal pleasure in being able to help fulfill Carol Cleven’s dedicated mission to honor Bruce Freeman and his dream,” added State Rep. Geoffrey Hall, D-Westford.

“After more than 20 years in planning, and design, the groundbreaking of Phase 1 of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is the culmination of great effort by public servants, legislators and advocates, past and present; we are very grateful for all their work,” said Tom Michelman, president of the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Inc.

“Because of structural changes in the design and construction process, and great support from the [Gov. Deval] Patrick administration, local, regional, state, and federal agencies, legislators and officials, we are optimistic the next phases will be constructed in the next few years as long as we, the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, do our job as public advocates of this soon-to-be great public asset.”

Lowell’s S&R Corporation is conducting the actual work in progress. Each phase is being developed by the communities through which it passes and with funds directed to each phase. Total costs haven’t been finalized, as a result.

Phase 1 will involve constructing 6.8 mi. (10.9 km) of trail in Lowell, Chelmsford and Westford. The work will include lane striping, earthwork, landscaping and other items incidental to the construction of the bike path. The project is scheduled to take two construction seasons to complete.

The trail, which honors the late Bruce Freeman, a strong advocate of nature and bike trails, will ultimately span 25 mi. (40.2 km) and will provide outdoor recreational space and commuting opportunities for a number of communities and their tens of thousands of residents located northwest of Boston.

Phase 1 in Chelmsford, near Cross Point, begins at the Lowell/Chelmsford line and ends at Route 225 in Westford. Construction is expected to be completed with the placement of landscaping and fencing in August 2009, according to MassHighway.

Phase 2 continues through Westford and goes through the communities of Carlisle, Acton, Concord and a portion of Sudbury, covering a stretch of 13.1 mi. (21 km). Several town meetings have discussed this part of the trail, completed, set-aside and/or voted money for feasibility engineering studies and preliminary design.

From north to south they are:

• Westford, $20,000 for preliminary design

• Carlisle, $20,000 for preliminary design

• Acton, $25,000 for a feasibility study (completed), and $452,000 for preliminary design

• Concord, $25,000 for a feasibility study (completed with funds raised by the Friends), and $160,000 for preliminary design

• Sudbury, $25,000 for a feasibility study (completed), and

• $145,000 for studies related to the preliminary design

Phase 3 completes the trail going through Sudbury and Framingham for a total of 4.6 mi. (7.4 km). There is no set date for the completion of the entire 25-mi. bike trail, but it is projected to go at least four years forward.

Clearing Trees, Removing Bridges

The clearing operation for the Freeman Memorial Bike Path was completed on Jan. 7.

According to Cynthia McLain — a member of the board of directors for the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, and a Chelmsford resident — the clearing of numerous trees and brush along the 6.8 mi. of the future path took two months. Installation of erosion control fencing was completed on Dec. 7 and Orange snow fencing has been installed at road intersections to restrict unauthorized access to the path.

Over the coming months, the rails and ties will be removed and the four bridges will be reconstructed, said McLain.

MassHighway will then have to remove several bridges and preserve and recondition their abutments and wing walls. According to McLain, the demolition operation involves removal of the rails, ties and beams or concrete deck on each of four Chelmsford bridges — one between Chelsmford Center and High Street, two bridges between High Street and Maple Road, and another between Lakeside and Westview avenues.

No explosives will be used during this process. The contractor has been instructed to quickly remove any debris that may reach the water. Once the existing bridge superstructure has been removed, concrete barriers will be placed at the bridge endpoints to help prevent accidental falls.

At road intersections, additional clearing was required to improve crossing safety, McLain added. Landscape plantings of shrubs and grass are planned for those locations. At the railroad bridges, additional clearing was required to provide space for the contractors to work on the bridges. Plantings will be done in those areas as well. The trees removed during the clearing process were shredded and will be dyed and sold as landscaping mulch.

Building Paths Over Abandoned Ties

Rail trails are growing in popularity for recreation and commuting as a number of unprofitable freight lines are abandoned, according to Jennifer Kaleba, spokeswoman of the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy.

The conservancy is a Washington nonprofit group that helps communities and trail planners find resources to build hiking and biking trails on the former rail beds.

The trails have proven very popular in Rhode Island. The East Bay Bicycle Path connecting Bristol to East Providence, R.I. — a 15.1-mi. (24 km) black ribbon of asphalt that is used by up to 10,000 bikers, runners, joggers, walkers and other pedestrians each weekend in warm weather — was completed in the early 1990s at a cost of about $1.5 million.

It, too, was built over an abandoned rail line, the end of the old Providence-to-Newport train run that stopped decades ago.

Another heavily traveled bike trail over rail lines is the Minuteman Bikeway in Cambridge, Arlington, Lexington and Bedford, Mass. It runs through a heavily populated area and provides a direct route in and out of Alewife Station, a terminus of the Red Line.

An existing trail, which is very similar to the proposed Bruce Freeman Trail is the Nashua River Rail Trail in Ayer, Groton, Pepperell and Dunstable, Mass.

Kaleba said a federal “rail banking” law makes it easier for abandoned lines to be converted to rail trails. It also makes it easier to convert the land back to railroad, she said.

The conservancy lists 1,453 completed rail trails for a total of 13,852 mi. (22,293 km), and 1,079 rail trail projects in the works, which would create another 12,524 trail mi. (20,155 km). According to the list, Massachusetts has 65 trails.

Former Framingham to Lowell Line

According to the Friends of Bruce Freeman Web site, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is going to be cemented over the former Framingham to Lowell Rail Line, which has two segments. The state of Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) owns the rail bed north of the east-west crossing (the Mass. Central Rail Trail) just north of Route 20 in Sudbury to the CrossPoint Towers in Lowell (the former Wang Towers).

The rail bed south of the crossing is owned by CSX, the railroad company.

Obviously, clearing a path is the hardest part of the work by S&R Construction of Lowell.

According to the company, an excavator with a grapple is used to remove most trees, a forwarder is used to move the trees to where they will be shredded, and a grinder is used for shredding the trees. To reduce impact on the surrounding areas, chainsaws may also be used in some areas for removing trees and branches.

In 2007, the state budgeted $5.8 million, including management overhead, for constructing Phase 1, the first 6.8-mi. section. This works out to an average cost of about $853,000 per mile. Acton and Concord had engineering estimates performed that show that the average cost will run about $1 million per mile, due to major bridge work and road crossings.

Again, according to the Friends Web site, the construction costs for Phases 2 and 3 may vary quite a bit from community to community. Rail trail costs can vary based on the ease of construction or if there are special needs such as building bridges, highway crossings or other special structures. Concord will require two bridges — one across the Assabet River and one across Route 2. Acton will require six brook crossings and a crossing of Route 2A/119. One of the goals of the town-funded engineering studies is to get an estimate of these costs.

The process of establishing a rail trail, according to the people dreaming and financing it, is a long one, so expenses will be spread over a long period of time. The near-term cost is the engineering studies that will cost around $25,000 per town. Acton has already paid for and completed its study.

All of the up-front costs up to the “25 percent design” level will be the responsibility of the towns. The state will pay up to 10 percent of the cost and the remaining 80 percent will be paid through federal transportation funds.

The standard width for a rail trail is 10 to 12 ft. (3 to 3.6 m) of firm surface with appropriate shoulders on each side. About half of existing rail trails have paved surfaces. Such a surface accommodates the widest range of users and is the lowest cost to maintain.

However, other surfaces may be considered such as stone dust. These surfaces sometimes cost more than paving and may have higher maintenance costs.

Cyclists will certainly be one of the largest groups of users. However, a rail trail is meant as a community path that accommodates all kinds of users. In many communities, walkers are the largest users of rail trails.

In the winter, cross-country skiers use the trails. The cycling users of the rail trails are more likely to be families with children, recreational users and commuters. CEG

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