Rail trails an exercise in patience, planning, and productivity
On a smooth stretch of stone dust trail between Wenham Street in Danvers and Route 97 in Wenham, amid strollers, joggers, and dog walkers, Cindy Stone looked slightly out of place in her electric-powered scooter chair.
“Most people don’t think this trail is wheelchair-accessible,” said Stone, who lives in Danvers, near the trail.
“But I can fly down here,” she said with a smile. “If I didn’t have this trail, I wouldn’t be able to get out as much.”
That’s exactly the idea behind the Danvers Rail Trail, said Kate Day, the town’s senior planner. The rail trail took an underutilized resource and converted it into a recreational corridor.
“The surgeon general recently announced a huge public health initiative, focused on the very genuine benefits of 22 minutes of walking per day,” said Day. “We feel proud to have this now-loved community resource in Danvers, and are planning ways to inspire trail users to respond to his challenge.”
The 4.3-mile Danvers section connects north to Wenham and Topsfield, running past the Topsfield Fairgrounds and across Route 1. It is part of the 28-mile Border to Boston Trail, which is being designed to ultimately run from Salisbury to Peabody.
Rail trails, however, can now be found winding through dozens of communities in Eastern and Central Massachusetts, reminders of a time when the railroad was the chief mode of commercial transportation.
“The Danvers trail was 20-plus years in the making,” said Day. “With the abandonment of freight and passenger service, the MBTA decided to ‘land bank’ this defunct rail corridor and offered Danvers the opportunity to convert this 4.3-mile segment to a recreational path under a 99-year lease.
“A key to success was the group of advocates who worked to advance the trail despite some concerns and resistance, and who have continued to work tirelessly to develop, maintain, and improve the trail at no cost to the town.”
According to Robert Weidknecht, a landscape architect with Beals and Thomas in Southborough, community support and the backing of local officials are essential to create a rail trail. Weidknecht has consulted on numerous trail systems professionally, in addition to working as a volunteer on the Holliston section of the Upper Charles Trail project.
“The key to success was setting up many meetings with town and community groups, and discussing how they can benefit and get involved in the project,” he said.
Weidknecht said the trails provide many benefits in addition to recreation, including community building, nature walks, and encouraging alternative modes of transportation (such as commuting by bike). Invariably, though, rail-trail proposals face stiff opposition, ranging from politics and cost to the specter of crime.
“It’s a typical reaction that there will be a loss of privacy, and criminals will use the rail trail to access backyards to steal children and commit crimes,” Weidknecht said. “Many oppose it for selfishness. Many have used it for years for their private recreation, such as for dirt bikes and ATVs.”
Reno DeLuzio, a retired electrical engineer, has worked on the Milford portion of the Upper Charles Trail for 18 years and regularly faced local opposition.
Local rail-trail proponents, he said, were confronted by the NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude and “fear of the unknown and unintended consequences.”
“Abutters have the misperception that a bike path along or in the vicinity of their property will adversely affect their property values and the marketability of their homes,” said DeLuzio, or that “the trail will attract undesirable outsiders to the community, leading to more crime.”
Those fears, while understandable, have proved unfounded, said trail proponents. Weidknecht said Milford police say crime has fallen in the areas near the rail trail, thanks to the additional eyes and ears of the people using the trail.
“It is absolutely wonderful to see people who were once opposed to the rail trail now using it for walking and biking,” said Weidknecht.
Communities have also been creative in funding these projects. DeLuzio said the Milford portion of the Upper Charles Trail cost $6.5 million, with 80 percent covered by federal grants. The state kicked in 10 percent, and the town funded the remainder.
“Significant volunteer effort has kept the cost down,” said Weidknecht, noting that the local trail cost “roughly $35,000 per mile for stone dust surfaces with volunteers, versus $1 [million] to $2 million using the Mass Department of Transportation process.
Rail trail success stories, say proponents, far outweigh any lingering criticisms.
“It is well documented that there are significant health benefits in walking and biking,” said DeLuzio. “Trails offer a safe off-road opportunity for all ages and abilities to enjoy the outdoors and engage in these healthful activities. Recreational facilities in a community — especially golf courses and hiking/walking/biking trails — stimulate economic activity, enhance property values, and improve the quality of life for all its citizens.
“The 6.5-mile paved Milford Upper Charles Trail from the Hopkinton town line through Milford to the Holliston town line is complete and is one of the most utilized and popular recreational facilities in town,” he said. “The trail corridor offers the outdoor enthusiast much greater access to several hundred acres of conservation lands in Milford and neighboring Holliston that were inaccessible to the average person before the trail was built.”
To find a local rail trail, visit the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailLink website at traillink.com, and enter your zip code.