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The People Who Build Rail Trails - Part 2

By Charlie McCabe

Last summer I wrote about the Golden Spike Conference and a bike tour of part of the Mass Central Rail Trail, built by the East Quabbin Land Trust in central western Massachusetts. Since then, another two-plus miles have opened, joining what is a growing network of trails across Massachusetts. This expansion is possible due to former railroad rights-of-way that have been purchased and rail-banked by a range of nonprofit and public organizations (including the State of Massachusetts).

Progress is slow and steady, given that individual segments of trails must be approved and at least partially funded by the individual cities and towns that a given trail segment passes through. While the state has matching funds programs and some great ways to reduce costs, NIMBY-ism is very much alive and well, usually with small groups of property owners using procedural and legal tactics to slow down improvements for the public on what is public property. They often cite long debunked reasons, chiefly "safety," which is code for "other" people from out of town. This is a common challenge that the Rails to Trails Conservancy has been working on decades. It is also well chronicled in Peter Harnik's book From Rails to Trails, a must-read if you are working on any type of trail, or if you enjoy riding, running or walking trails.

Often, creating a trail takes a committed group of volunteers to persevere through many years of advocacy, fundraising, lobbying, hands-on volunteering, and a variety of other tasks. One of the first in the Boston area was the Minuteman Bikeway, which I was able to use daily when I lived in Arlington. While the bikeway is now 30 years old, the work of advocacy, approvals, and funding took over 10 years, well-documented in this 2017 video history: Revival: The Story of the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway.

I was thinking about all of this recently when my wife and I took advantage of an abnormally warm November Sunday to ride a large chunk of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. The Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail just celebrated their 20th anniversary (after years of informal advocacy and organizing). The first phase, totaling 6.8 miles, opened in 2009, and the trail has more than doubled in length since then. I should note that the next phases through portions of Concord and Sudbury are now under construction. Sudbury's portions had been held up for many years by a small group of NIMBY neighbors who repeatedly filed lawsuits, eventually losing at the State Supreme Court.

While the day was overcast, there were still some leaves on the trees and plenty of leaves carpeting portions of the trail. We rode from Acton to Chelmsford and back, about 24 miles over a few hours. While the new bridge over State Highway Route 2 was technically still under construction, we joined other cyclists on the newly paved surface over to West Concord center. It was impressive, with many people taking advantage of the weather to get out and enjoy the trail.

I'm sure that many people don't even know that the many rail trails out there were railroads. As Peter Harnik has said repeatedly, the primary reason for him to write the book was this frequent interaction on any given rail-trail:

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?”

Challenges for rail trail organizations remain daunting. Bedford MA, which already has two miles of the Minuteman Bikeway, rejected a plan (via a special town meeting) to upgrade a 1.7-mile extension of the Minuteman called the Reformatory Branch Trail, which already exists as a natural surface trail. With this vote, they declined $10 million in matching state funds.

All of which is to say that local groups need your support! With Giving Tuesday and end-of-year charitable giving in mind, please consider donating to your local land trust, "friends" of your favorite park, or friends of a local trail or rail trail. They work long and hard to make trails a reality, and they'll certainly appreciate your gift.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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