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The People who Build Rail Trails: Part 1

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

Last Saturday, I attended the Golden Spike conference, otherwise known as the Mass Central Rail Trail Conference. We gathered at a 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 between Boston and Northampton.

The Mass Central Rail Trail is planned to be 104 miles long: 51 miles have been built (hard or soft surfaces) and 90% of the land is owned by a protecting entity (public agency, land trust, easement from power company etc.). 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 conference field trips). The trail, once fully built, 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 ascendant (remember that?). It was a chance for 75 or so advocates for trails and open space to gather and hear a few great speakers, including Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails to Trails Conservancy and author of the book that should be next on your reading list: From Rails to Trails: the making of America's Active Transportation Network.

Peter mentioned that the key motivation in researching and writing his book was a common 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. Penna is 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 U.S.

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 of inactive railways (over 800 miles) than any other state, it lacks statewide authority (legislation) to drive projects like the Mass Central Rail Trail. That means it becomes the responsibility of cities and towns to take up the effort (aided by state grants) to build miles of trails on the ground.

Since about 1990, rail trails have been added in many states, and the process has accelerated over time. 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 more recently have been able to coalesce around rail trail conversions.

There remains, however, fierce opposition by property owners in some situations. Usually this comes from a small group of homeowners along an old railroad right of way who use local budget laws and other legal hurdles to stall rail trail progress. A group called Protect Sudbury is one primary example, and they are still actively opposing the acquisition and planning for a portion of the Mass Central Rail Trail.

The extremely popular and successful Minuteman Bikeway in Greater Boston faced similar opposition for years. In fact, it took 18 years of advocacy, negotiation, and wrangling to get built. An excellent 17-minute documentary on the history of the trail was produced by a graduate student at Northeastern a few years back and is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it:

At the conference, both Peter and Craig had some key points about advocacy for trails, especially rail-trails:

1. Have a plan that can be effectively communicated through a variety of channels.

2. Be prepared for the long haul. Despite the general success of rail trails, there are still misguided people who strongly object and give the usual, unfounded reasons, such as "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. Invite speakers who’ve done this work in similar areas (rural for rural communities, urban for cities, etc.) to come talk about lessons learned.

3. Take 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.

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