Where's the bike path?
It's a frequently asked question, especially by parents who want a car-free place to bike with their children. Especially if they've enjoyed the Minuteman Bikeway from Cambridge to Bedford, or the Cape Cod Rail Trail, or the Norwottuck Trail in Northampton and Amherst, or the East Bay Bike Path from Providence to Bristol, R.I.
The short answer is: There is no paved bike path in Worcester, nor anywhere nearby. The closest things in Central Massachusetts are the first mile of the North Central Pathway in Gardner, which was paved in 1997, and the Central Mass. Rail Trail in West Boylston, which so far is a one-mile stretch surfaced with compacted stone dust.
The long answer is that there are about 60 recreational paths on the drawing board across the state, which is criss-crossed by unused rail beds, and money for some of them is inching through the bureaucratic pipeline, but these things get political, and they take time. Decades, sometimes.
Before anyone picks up a shovel, much less lays asphalt, there are feasibility studies and environmental studies and engineering studies and negotiations to acquire property easements or rights-of-way and intermunicipal agreements and town meeting votes and campaigns for matching funds and design reviews and contract bids and local permits, and the list goes on. These are miniature highway projects, really.
The Blackstone River Bikeway, for example, has been plotted on paper for a good 10 years now. Grants and contracts have been awarded for preliminary work on some segments, but the Providence-to-Worcester project hasn't reached the construction stage in Massachusetts. The segments snaking under the Massachusetts Turnpike interchange at Route 146 in Millbury may be the first to be constructed but are not slated to open for at least another year or two.
To repeat word for word what was printed in this space 14 months ago, because the upshot has not changed: Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, not one inch of the 26-mile bike path in Massachusetts is a reality -- unless you count stretches of existing roads, such as Millbury's North Main Street (Route 122A), that eventually will have signs labeling their shoulders part of the bike route. That is not to say that signs alone make a road any more desirable for cycling than it is now.
Much of the $6 million in federal money earmarked for the Blackstone River Bikeway in 1998 has not come through, for lack of a 20 percent match from the state, said Michael Creasy, executive director of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission. This month the commission applied for $5 million in federal funds -- with no match required -- to build 6.5 miles of the route from the Rhode Island line into Uxbridge.
Meanwhile, Creasy said, work is urgently needed to acquire land rights for the bikeway. "We've seen parcels that were projected to be part of the bikeway lost to subdivisions already," he said.
Rhode Island opened a three-mile segment of the bikeway in Lincoln in 1998 and is scheduled to start building the adjacent 3 miles in Cumberland soon, according to Lisa Lawless, principal civil engineer in the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. A preconstruction conference is scheduled for this week, and the segment may take two years to complete, she said.
For a color map of the planned bikeway and a road route from Providence to Worcester that can be used now, send $3 to East Coast Greenway Alliance (http://www.greenway.org/), 135 Main St., Wakefield, RI 02879.
Elsewhere, similarly painstaking progress is being made on the Assabet River Rail Trail (www.arrtinc.org/ ), a 12-mile route from Marlboro to Acton on an abandoned MBTA line. After seven years of planning, a gravel base has been built for about half a mile of the path in Marlboro, off Fairbanks Boulevard, south of Fitchburg Street.
Gardner and Winchendon recently acquired the railroad right-of-way for the aforementioned North Central Pathway, an eight-mile route. Money has been allotted to get the ball rolling on a 13-mile bike path in Ware and Hardwick. And design money has been granted for a 26-mile trail loop in Milford, Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Sherborn and Holliston.
In short, things are looking up in Massachusetts, which has lagged other states in converting old railroads to recreational use, said Craig Della Penna, New England representative for the Rails to Trails Conservancy and author of "Great Rail-Trails of the Northeast."
"Change is in the wind," Della Penna said, since Andrew Natsios replaced James Kerasiotes as Big Dig czar. "Mr. Kerasiotes won't be down for breakfast anymore. I suspect he had something to do with the fact that trails were not a high priority."
But obstacles remain, he said. For one, the state Architectural Review Board wants all trails built with federal money from the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century to be paved so people in wheelchairs can use them. Creating a paved path in Massachusetts under TEA 21 about $250,000 per mile, compared to $100,000 per mile for stone dust, which if properly installed and maintained is fine for wheelchairs, Della Penna said.
Moreover, pavement alienates equestrians, and trail users of all kinds need to band together, not battle each other, if they want trails built, Della Penna said.
Trail proponents also worry that the revenue-strapped MBTA, which owns most of the unused rail corridors east of Interstate 495, could sell off unused railroad land piecemeal, a real threat under the agency's newly quasi-privatized real estate management. "We the people already bought the land once, in the 1970s, for the MBTA," Della Penna said. "We shouldn't have to buy it again."
Under scrutiny from the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee, led by Sen. Cheryl Jacques, D-Needham, the MBTA has agreed to re-examine its policies for leasing unused rights of way for bike paths.
Once they get built, these paths become hugely popular with cyclists, joggers, walkers, in-line skaters and others. Fears of crime and eroding property values evaporate, according to Rails to Trails.
But government bureaucrats aren't going to rush to get the old railroads cleared and resurfaced, with safe grade crossings and landscaped buffers and so forth, unless people clamor for it. So if you're looking for a bike path around here, pick a project and get involved. Here's where to call:
Assabet River Rail Trail: Jeff Richards, 978-464-5581
Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor: 401-762-0250
Hardwick Area Conservation Trust: Rick Romano, 413-477-6021
Ware Office of Community Development: Paul Hills, 413-967-7136
Wachusett Greenways: Ed Yaglou, 978-355-2539
Gardner Office of Community Development: 978-630-4011
TIP OF THE HELMET -- to Woosta Pizza, 8 Franklin St., Worcester, for using a cycle instead of a car for lunchtime deliveries downtown. The heavy three-speed trike, custom built by the Worksmen company in Long Island, N.Y., cost about $600, said pizza shop owner Mike Hill, and is saving him $20 to $25 a week in parking tickets.
Cycling door to door downtown is much faster than driving, Hill said. To get to Worcester Medical Center, for example, he can cut across the common and scoot down Commercial Street rather than taking Franklin Street to Worcester Center Boulevard. Moreover, the bike is fun. "The employees fight over who gets to ride it," Hill said.