The first section of a planned 40-mile system of hiking, walking, and biking trails atop old aqueducts in Boston and 13 western suburbs officially opened this week in Framingham.
State and local officials said opening the 1.1-mile trail along a scenic section of a century-old, no-longer-used aqueduct owned by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority off Elm Street is the first step in creating a lasting impact on the area for generations to come.
“This is a new policy, and quite honestly a different way of thinking,” said Richard K. Sullivan, secretary of environmental affairs, of the partnership between the MWRA and the town of Framingham. “It’s a great first step.”
The first segment of trail, which opened Monday, is being examined as a prototype for other communities, including Natick, Newton, Wellesley, Weston, Southborough, and Northborough, which have started or are near completion of the application process, according to the MWRA’s executive director, Frederick A. Laskey.
Berlin, Clinton, Marlborough, Needham, Sherborn, and Wayland, as well as several sections of Boston, also have MWRA aqueducts where trails will eventually be opened. Communities must hold public hearings and sign a formal agreement with the MWRA before trails are opened.
Sullivan said the decision to open the MWRA-owned land to the public will change the “very fabric and quality of life” along the aqueducts by putting “legitimate people on the trails with legitimate reasons to be there.”
That’s exactly what Julie Novak is hoping will happen.
Novak, who lives on Elm Street in North Framingham, just one house away from the newly created trail entrance, said she supports the project because she is a runner and plans to use it, but also because she thinks it will help keep away the teenagers and others who frequent the area.
Gesturing toward the woods behind her house next to the trail, she said there are often groups of teenagers partying there, even though no-trespassing signs are posted on the land.
“I’m thinking that having people out using the trails will keep them away,” she said.
According to David Loutzenheiser, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council who specializes in trails, there are examples from across the state and country where unauthorized uses cease once land is opened to the public.
“As they become more well used and people embrace them, home values go up,” he said. “In reality, people have been informally using these aqueducts, but the public will become the community’s eyes and ears for safety once they’re opened.”
When Laskey first heard of the proposal to open the trails, he said, his first thought was, “Don’t we have enough to do?”
But, he said, Joel Barrera, a member of the MWRA board of directors and the deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, persuaded him to make the time.
“Joel said, ‘This is legacy stuff,’ ” Laskey said.
The project has been several years in the making, but Barrera is confident the plan has momentum.
“If we do things right, within the next four to five years 40 miles of aqueduct worth hundreds of millions of dollars if we were to buy them will be open to the public,” Barrera said. “And the beauty is, it will all be open at virtually no cost to the public.”
“Often you hear that government can’t get things done; well, we got this done,” Laskey said.
The MWRA’s agreement with Framingham provides that it continues to mow and maintain the trials while the local government assumes responsibility for keeping the trails clean, providing animal control, security, and emergency-response services. The same agreement will be made with other communities as the trails are opened.
State Representative Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat who was also a key proponent of the project, said his community’s financial investment has been minimal, including painting crosswalks on the road in front of the entrances and posting signs with the trail’s rules.
“Framingham is not on tap for spending any money on a continuing basis,” Walsh said. “This is an example of what government can do just by reframing a few key questions.”
Robert L. Merusi, director of Framingham Parks and Recreation, which is in charge of overseeing the trails, said the town is taking the process slowly, opening the short stretch from Elm Street to Water Street first to gauge the response.
Abutters raised several concerns at a public hearing last August, including parking, animal control and waste, security, signs, hours of operation, access, enforcement, and cost.
Merusi said those concerns were addressed at follow-up community meetings with agreements that no specific parking spaces for the trails would be established at this time, and that the land on either side of the top of the aqueducts would remain in MWRA control and off-limits to people using the trails.
In addition, the trails will be open from dawn to dusk only, dogs must be leashed and their waste cleaned up, motorized vehicles are prohibited, and all trash must be carried out.