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The People who build rail-trails: part 1

By Charlie McCabe

Last Saturday, I attended the Golden Spike conference, otherwise known as the Mass Central Rail Trail Conference. We gathered at an historic church, now a community center in Gilbertville, a village of Hardwick, MA, about halfway along the planned route of the Mass Central Rail Trail, a 104-mile rail trail between Boston and Northampton.


The Mass Central Rail Trail is planned to be 104 miles long, running from Boston to Northampton. 51 miles have been built (hard or soft surfaces), 90 miles are owned by protecting entity (public agency, land trust, easement from power company etc.) and MassDOT completed a feasibility study for the 68 miles in central Massachusetts under the direction of Pete Sutton, MassDOT bike/pedestrian coordinator (who also led one of the field trips) The trail, once fully built out, will connect 17 other existing (and expanding) trails and a portion of it is on the designated East Coast Greenway).


The conference had been postponed from October 2021, when Covid variant Delta was ascendent (remember that?) It was a chance for 75 or so trail and open space advocates to gather and hear a few great speakers, including Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails to Trails Conservancy and author of the (you should definitely read) From Rails to Trails: the making of America's Active Transportation Network.


Peter mentioned that the key motivation in researching and writing the book is a conversation on a rail trail that usually goes like this:


Enthusiastic person: “I just love this trail! They should put them in everywhere!”

Peter: “Well, they’re not at all easy to create, and you can only put them in where there was an old railroad.”

Enthusiastic person: “This used to be a railroad?”


The conference (and indeed the effort between the Mass Central Rail Trail) was organized by Craig Della Penna, who is a former Rails to Trail Conservancy staffer and now a realtor and owner of a B&B right on the 11 mile Norwottuck Rail Trail that runs from Northhampton to Belchertown (part of the Mass Central Rail Trail) - You can subscribe to his monthly newsletter on the mass central rail trail website, well worth it for the wide range of news, covering much of the northeastern US.


I was especially interested in the role of East Quabbin Land Trust in pursuing portions of the trail as a part of their charter. I sat at lunch with the Executive Director and one of the board members and they spoke of their specific efforts and the logical expansion into trails, especially the Mass Central Rail Trail. They completed a 3 mile section of the trail in 2015, with another 2.2 miles currently under construction. (A picture from one of the bridges over the Ware River is below)


Both the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and MassDOT are heavily invested in making the Mass Central Rail Trail a reality and there’s active design and construction activities in multiple locations along the corridor. That said, while Massachusetts owns more miles in inactive railways (over 800 miles) than any other state, it lacks state wide authority (legislation) to drive projects like the Mass Central Rail Trail, so it becomes the responsibility of cities and towns to take up the effort (aided by state grants) resulting in miles of trails on the ground.


Since about 1990, rail-trails have been increasingly added in many states, and the process has accelerated over time. The reasons are several, according to Peter and Craig. Bicyclists have often been the driving force for more trails, but until recently bicyclists were more divided in terms of advocacy nationally. They often focused on specific goals (commuting, recreation, etc.) but have been able to coalesce around rail trail conversions. The other was fierce opposition by a usually small group of usually adjacent property owners along an old railroad right of way who used knowledge of local budget law as well as the broader legal system to hold up efforts. The poster children for these has been a group called Protect Sudbury, who opposed the acquisition and then planning for a portion of the Mass Central Rail Trail.


A great early example is the Minuteman Bikeway in Greater Boston, which took 18 years of advocacy, negotiation and wrangling to get built - a great 17-minute documentary done by a then graduate student at Northeastern, is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBY81vjAD2E

Both Peter and Craig had some great key points in thinking about advocacy for trails, especially rail-trails.

1. Have a plan. Think how to devise a plan that can be effectively communicated through a variety of channels.

2. Be prepared for the long haul. There are misguided people who strongly object (still) to trails and rail trails and quote the usual silly reasons - they’ll bring increased crime, they’ll trespass on my property, they’ll lower my property values. All of these “reasons” have been thoroughly refuted, but there you go.


Craig likes to talk about the process of building trails as a “drip by drip” sequence. His recommended steps include:


1) Form a friends group of local advocates.

2) Get people who’ve done this work in similar areas (rural for rural communities, urban for cities, etc.) to come and speak and talk about lessons learned.

3) Get city and town officials out on a walk or ride on a nearby trail, encouraging them to ask questions.

4) Propose a resolution asking the town/city to pursue a concept, etc.

5) Don't give up. Nothing happens without a plan and the people motivated to make it happen.


Craig's guidance is very similar to the parks and open spaces friends groups approach that I work with in my parks/open space consulting work.


It was a great day of learning and riding. My thanks to Peter, Craig, Cynthia and her team at East Quabbin Land Trust and many, many others working across the state (and across the country) for more trails.


Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC.

Link to all of my posts in this series.



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