After more than a decade of planning and debate, the goal of bringing a bike trail to Natick is about to become a reality.
In May, contractors began a $12.1 million project to construct the town’s segment of the Cochituate Rail Trail, a paved recreational path in Natick and Framingham.
When completed, the approximately 4-mile trail will allow bicyclists and pedestrians to travel unimpeded by motor vehicle traffic from Natick Center to the Saxonville neighborhood in Framingham. The 1.4-mile Framingham section was opened in 2015, with the Natick section targeted for completion in spring 2021.
In addition to clearing and paving the railbed, the Natick construction — funded entirely by state and federal dollars — includes replacing an antiquated railroad trestle with a new pedestrian bridge over Route 9, erecting a bridge over Route 30 to link the Natick and Framingham segments, and building a quarter-mile spur linking the trail to existing paths around Natick Mall.
“This is a tremendous project for Natick and the region,” said Josh Ostroff, chairman of the Natick Cochituate Rail Trail Advisory Committee.
State and local officials are gathering for a groundbreaking for the project on Friday, July 19, at 1:30 p.m. at the intersection of General Greene Avenue and North Main Street.
When completed, the trail “will help transform the region by connecting Natick Center and its MBTA station, the Natick Mall, Lake Cochituate State Park, and major commercial and employment destinations in Natick and Framingham, including an area often referred to as the Golden Triangle,” Ostroff said by e-mail.
Ostroff said the town anticipates many abutters linking to the trail, noting that already MathWorks has built a paved path connecting the trail to its Lakeside campus, and that the state park plans an entrance to the trail.
He said Natick also plans to seek funds to extend the trail terminus in Natick Center another 1,000 feet south to connect with the MBTA station once a planned reconstruction of the station is completed in the coming years.
Highlighting the convenient access it will offer many residents, Ostroff noted that, in the past 12 years or so, Natick has permitted more than 1,000 housing units along the trail.
Town Administrator Melissa Malone said construction of the Natick segment highlights the strong partnerships that are helping the town in undertaking community projects.
“This really shows the vibrancy of our town because we have people willing to invest here — not only businesses but our government partners at the state and federal levels,” she said.
Passenger trains traveled the rail route — the Saxonville branch of the Boston & Albany rail line — from 1846 until it was discontinued in 1936, according to a 1936 local news story.
Freight service ended in 2005. CSX removed the rails and ties and in 2016 Natick purchased the right-of-way from the freight operator for $6.1 million, authorized by Town Meeting in 2018. Natick has also invested $1.2 million for design. About two-thirds of the town’s costs have been covered through payments by developers to mitigate for their project impacts.
Some in town objected to Natick spending money to acquire the land when it has other pressing needs. But Malone said she believes the trail will contribute to the distinctive vitality the town is seeking to create through that and other infrastructure projects still to come.
“It’s a crucial piece of a puzzle we are building,’’ she said, “and the first one out of the gate.”