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Rail-trail supporters divided over strategy

Supporters of a proposed rail trail that would run between Needham Heights and Newton are trying to jump-start the project after it was put on the back burner by the Needham Board of Selectmen.

But some town officials worry the group’s efforts could slow the momentum of another recreational path on an inactive rail corridor, this one running south from Needham Junction.

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The Friends of the Needham Rail Trail Greenway formed this summer after town officials decided to focus on the 1.9-mile link between Needham Junction and Dover as part of the Bay Colony Rail Trail project.

Tom Connors, who formed the new group, doesn’t want the town to give up on the 1.13-mile path that would stretch to the northeast from Needham Heights, crossing Webster and Gould streets, Route 128 and the Charles River, into Newton.

He led a petition drive that placed an article on  Monday’s Special Town Meeting warrant that would create an advisory committee to study both proposed trails, and determine the feasibility of building them.

“Our goal is to utilize all unused rail lines in Needham,’’ said Connors, a former member of the Bay Colony Rail Trail Association. “We’d like to form a committee to study the issue.’’

But if the article is approved, some town officials say, it could jeopardize progress on the Bay Colony’s Needham Junction trail. Also on the warrant is a proposal to spend $35,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for an engineering study on the project. The town committee overseeing the CPA program supports the request, but its chairman said the panel would seek to withdraw it if Town Meeting approves Connors’ article.

Fork in the road

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“If Town Meeting wants to have a more extensive study, then they’ll probably want funding for that study so it would be more efficient to do it all at once,’’ said Mark Gluesing, the Community Preservation Committee’s chairman.

Jerry Wasserman, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said selectmen support both rail trails, but think the Bay Colony group is ready to move forward first at Needham Junction. And that won’t happen if the advisory committee is approved, he said.

“It will hold up Bay Colony and I don’t want to do that,’’ Wasserman said.

The selectmen voted to recommend Town Meeting send Connors’ proposal back to the board instead of approving it.

“We believe the work we’ve being doing with the Bay Colony Rail Trail is the way to go,’’ Wasserman said.

Wasserman said the board also supports the Needham Heights rail trail, but wants to hold off until some other issues are resolved. For example, a bridge is needed to carry the path across Route 128/Interstate 95, but the existing span is slated to be torn down as part of the highway’s ongoing reconstruction project, Wasserman said.

“There is no rush because the state isn’t going to build a bridge there any time soon,’’ Wasserman said. “We feel there is time to explore what is the best alternative. I’d love to see a rail trail and public transportation.’’

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said the town just started a feasibility study with Newton that will look at transit options along the stretch in Needham Heights to connect the two communities in an effort to boost economic development. She said there has been some talk about expanding the MBTA’s Green Line through Newton and into Needham, or running an MBTA bus or shuttle line along there.

Lynda Hughes, a Needham Heights resident, thinks it makes sense to look at both projects at the same time, and doesn’t understand the hesitation among town officials.

“My fear and concern is if it isn’t done as one cohesive project, it won’t get done in the future,’’ Hughes said. “It’s kind of concerning that the town isn’t looking to do a full feasibility study on the entire project.’’

Tad Staley, the president of the Bay Colony association, said his group is not opposed to the Needham Heights trail, but decided the immediate focus should be on the trail that has fewer obstacles to overcome, and that has the selectmen’s support.

Residents, businesses, and town officials have shown broad support for the Bay Colony group’s effort to create a recreational path on the inactive rail line that runs south from Needham Junction. The segment is part of a stretch that continues for 7 miles through Dover and into Medfield; officials in the two towns are also working on creating a recreational path along the railroad right of way.

“Bay Colony looked at both as opportunities in the course of working with the town of Needham on this, and it became clear to most of us that the southern section was more straightforward with fewer complications,’’ Staley said. “The controversy is not on whether we should have one in the north, but on the timing.’’

Staley said the 2-mile section from Needham Junction to the Dover line at the Charles River could be available as a recreational path within two years, at very little cost to the town. The Bay Colony association is working with an organization that would construct the path, topped with crushed stone or stone dust, in exchange for the right to salvage the steel railroad tracks it would remove.

But Connors said the same company is willing to work on the trail in Needham Heights, which means it, too, could be done for little money. He also said the Route 128 road project won’t be done for several years, so the existing railroad bridge could still be used until then. He thinks there would be a bigger incentive for the state to rebuild the bridge if it is already being used for an existing rail trail.

“What’s needed is for the town to explore this issue,’’ Connors said. “Let’s try to get it done now.’’

To update Town Meeting members, the Friends of the Needham Rail Trail Greenway held an information meeting last week with a slide presentation about the proposed rail trails. The presentation included a look at how the town could connect the 2.75 miles between the north and south sections along Rosemary Lake and with bike lanes.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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