Joel Barrera stood atop the 137-year-old Waban Arches, hidden in the woods off Washington Street in Wellesley, and proclaimed it “one of the most beautiful bridges in New England.”
The nine-arch span, built during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant to carry water in the Sudbury aqueduct over Waban Brook, is on state-owned land that has been officially out of bounds to the public. But it won’t be off-limits much longer.
“This is a really beautiful place, and now it’s going to be officially opened for everyone,” said Barrera, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Plans are moving forward to open public trails atop old aqueducts that snake through open space in 14 communities between Clinton and Boston. The section in Wellesley starting near the Waban Arches is expected to be opened by the town within weeks.
Agreements are also close in several other communities along the 40-mile system, according to MWRA officials.
Since state officials first unveiled the plans just over a year ago, “no trespassing” signs that were posted along the out-of-service MWRA aqueducts are coming down and slowly being replaced with new trail markers that authorize public, nonmotorized recreational use. The change opens new venues for walking, hiking, jogging, biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
“This is huge,” said Frederick Laskey, executive director of the MWRA. “There’s a whole hidden infrastructure . . . that is being opened up for people to use.”
The first 1.1-mile section was opened between Elm Street and Potter Road in Framingham last October. The “test case” has been watched closely, said Framingham Selectwoman Laurie Lee, who said neighbors were told to report any problems, “and so far things have gone very well.”
A second portion, extending east from Elm Street, is expected to be opened this fall, as soon as the town determines how best to mark the crossing at Elm Street, Lee said. The trail will continue across the Sudbury River to the Wayland town line, providing access to the southern portion of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Natick, which has already been granted a permit, is still determining trail design and feasibility before opening its stretch of aqueduct, said Town Administrator Martha L. White.
Northborough has also completed the application process, and its aqueduct trails are expected to open in three phases, said town planner Kathryn A. Joubert. She said the first 4.2-mile section, in the eastern section of town by Bartlett Street, should be officially opened by fall.
In addition, Marlborough, Newton, Sherborn, Southborough, Wayland, and Weston have expressed interest in starting the application process, said Ria Convery, the MWRA’s communications director.
“I had hoped things would go this quickly. I’m thrilled to see the eagerness at the local level to get this moving,” said Barrera, who was a catalyst in starting the project. “A year after the first public hearing, we have several others planned and are well positioned to begin opening major sections.”
On a recent visit to the Waban Arches, Laskey described the 1870s structure as “a real hidden gem.
“Other than the kids, no one even knows it’s here,” he said, gesturing toward brightly colored graffiti that have been drawn on the series of spans.
Paths to the Waban Arches have been used unofficially for years, according to Denny Nackoney, a member of Wellesley’s Trails Committee.
He said the graffiti markings have periodically been cleaned up, “but it returns pretty quickly.”
The Waban Arches are at one end of the 4.6-mile stretch on track for opening, starting in back of the parking lot behind the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, off Washington Street, and ending on Hunnewell Street by the Needham town line, Nackoney said.
“These are places a lot of people in town never see,” he said. “It’s a real eye-opener for a lot of people who don’t realize there is all this open space.”
In addition to better signage, the agreements stipulate that the MWRA will continue to mow and maintain the property around the aqueducts, while local authorities are responsible for keeping the trails clean and providing animal control, security, and emergency response.
And although the aqueducts are out of service, they are still maintained as a backup water system and can be quickly put back on line in case of emergency, officials said.
Laskey recalled May 1, 2010, the day a main MWRA pipeline burst in Weston, as the last time that water ran through the Sudbury aqueduct and the Waban Arches.
“The same guy who turned it off turned it back on,” he said. “This is the backup water supply, and it worked.”
The MWRA is adding some safety features along the trails. For example, a 4-foot-high black chain-link fence was added along the inside of the original iron fence on the Waban Arches to make the trail safer for pedestrians and workers. And in Framingham, a small bridge over the Sudbury River was fortified and a safety fence was added.
Places where the trails cross streets are also being addressed. Since some of the aqueducts cross very busy streets, the MWRA is working with local authorities to get pedestrian signs, crosswalks, or traffic lights installed where necessary, according to Tom Lindberg, an MWRA community coordinator who said in some cases rerouting the trail may be required.
In Needham, plans to open a trail that will run by the Elliot School, and eventually through to the Hemlock Gorge Reservation on the Newton line, is before the Board of Selectmen, according to Patricia Carey, the town Park and Recreation Department’s director.
To professional dog-walker Lisa Lundwall, who said she uses the trail almost every day to walk as many as six dogs, news that crosswalks or pedestrian signs may soon be erected at the busy Cedar Street crossing is welcome.
“Crossing that road is scary, because it is a blind curve,” she said.
In time, officials said, the cross streets and other obstacles will be addressed so the aqueduct system will form an east-to-west connected trail system to complement the north-to-south rail trails being opened along old railroad tracks.
“It’ll be a big, connective network of trails,” said state Representative Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat who, with Barrera, built momentum on Beacon Hill to open the trails. “Clearly, it’s an idea whose time has come, with communities up and down along the line showing enthusiasm.”