Worcester, Mass. 
June 10, 2001 

Bike path construction is slow going

By Lynne Tolman 

  Another year, another mile. 
  Actually, that's exaggerating the snail's pace of bike path construction in Central Massachusetts. By bike path, I mean a route that is separate from roads and has a surface such as asphalt or crushed stone dust that can be navigated on a road bike with skinny tires -- or a wheelchair. Trails suitable for mountain biking are a different animal. 
  The first segment of the Assabet River Rail Trail opened in Marlboro last month: a three-quarter-mile stretch of asphalt. And approximately one mile of the Mass Central Rail Trail in Rutland was surfaced with stone dust last fall. That's it, period, for rideable new bike paths in the region since 1997. Neither of these segments connects to any other completed segment. 
  Previously, the region's inventory of bike paths consisted of one stone-dust mile of the Mass Central in West Boylston, and one paved mile of the North Central Pathway in Gardner. Anyone looking for a longer bike path is advised to put the bike in the car and head for the Norwottuck Trail in Amherst, the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington, the Cape Cod Rail Trail or the East Bay Bike Path in Providence. 
  The message to road cyclists: Stick to the roads. 
  That's fine for many riders, and around here we have plenty of scenic, low-traffic back roads to pedal on. Sometimes even the busy roads that are most useful for getting from Point A to Point B are made more accommodating to bicyclists. 
  But bike paths become enormously popular when they are built, especially for families with children not ready to pedal in traffic. They also get heavy use by walkers, joggers and roller skaters. Contrary to typical objections when bike paths are first proposed, they do not lower property values and they do not put out a red carpet for criminals, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy. 
  More than 65 bike paths are planned on old railroad beds across the state, but there are numerous political and bureaucratic obstacles to getting them built. A report issued last month by the state Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee scolded Massachusetts for its poor track record in establishing rail trails, noting a backlog of more than 90 bicycle and pedestrian projects awaiting review and funding by the state Highway Department. 
  The report recommends streamlining the review process for such projects, and allowing design reforms and more local control. It also calls for the Highway Department to allot to rail trails some $75 million in federal pollution control funds before the money's "use it or lose it" deadlines pass. 
  The report also commends the MBTA for no longer charging communities to acquire its surplus rail lines for bike paths -- a policy change made in December under pressure from the same Senate committee, headed by Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques, D-Needham. 
  The painstaking progress being made on planned bike paths in Central Massachusetts: 

  •   Blackstone River Bikeway, 45 miles, Worcester to Providence: Two bridges from other parts of the state have been rebuilt and installed on a one-mile segment in Millbury and Worcester, under and alongside the Massachusetts Turnpike-Route 146 interchange, that will be paved by the fall, as will another mile, from Heritage Park to Millbury Street in Worcester, according to Len Barbieri, special projects manager for the Pike. Between the two segments will be a gap, so "you won't be able to bike it this fall," he said. 
       Meanwhile, the Highway Department recently approved $499,900 for design work  from Central Street in Millville to Route 122 in Uxbridge. A design consultant is evaluating 12 bridges on the Blackstone-Millville stretch, state Highway Department spokesman Doug Cope said. The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission and the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce recently formed a task force to keep the complicated project on track. Rhode Island opened three miles of the bikeway in Lincoln in 1998 and is working on another three-mile segment, in Cumberland. 
  •   Assabet River Rail Trail, 12.5 miles, Marlboro to Acton: The first three-quarters of a mile opened May 17 off Fitchburg Street in Marlboro. The design of the next four miles, in Marlboro and Hudson, should be completed next year, according to Cope. In March the MBTA transferred the right-of-way in Hudson to the town at no charge and is expected to do the same for Acton. After state review of the final design, construction bids can be sought, and construction itself will take about a year, so optimistically the ARRT is looking at a late 2002 opening for the four-mile Marlboro-Hudson segment, according to Duncan Power, clerk of ARRT Inc. 
  •   Wayside Rail Trail, 23 miles, Berlin to Waltham: Proponents are regrouping after a series of setbacks, including the MBTA's 1999 proposal, since abandoned, to run a bus service on the route, and the state's unprecedented suggestion that the towns pay for the bike path design. Weston voted in 1997 not to participate, but a report in The Boston Globe last month saying that was likely to kill the entire project was incorrect. "The opposition of one town will not prevent this from moving forward," Cope said. Trail users would just have to detour onto public roads to get through Weston. 
  •   Ware River Valley Greenway Trail, 13 miles, Ware and Hardwick: So-called 25 percent design of the three miles in Ware, from Grenville Park to the Hardwick line, is awaiting state review, according to Paul Hills of the Ware Office of Community Development. But Cope said the Highway Department has not received the 25 percent design. In any case, said Craig Della Penna, New England field representative for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, "no one is pushing them to expedite this," and if no one clamors for it, the Highway Department will not allot money. 
  •   Quinebaug Valley Trail, 11 miles, Southbridge to Webster: Last year the state Department of Environmental Management was allotted $1.3 million to buy the right-of-way from the Providence & Worcester Railroad. Trail proponent Ken Pickren of Southbridge said he doubts DEM will make the purchase unless the towns make a commitment to get the trail built, but the community hasn't shown enthusiasm for the project. To improve motorists' sight lines at Routes 131 and 169, the state Highway Department last month dismantled an abandoned P&W bridge over Route 131 in Southbridge, Cope said. 
  •   North Central Pathway, 8 miles, Gardner and Winchendon: The first mile was paved in 1997 along Crystal Lake, and the towns purchased the rest of the right-of-way a year ago. They are awaiting state Highway Department approval of the design of the next three miles, and the state has committed $600,000 for construction, said Robert Hubbard, executive director of the Gardner Office of Community Development. The Highway Department "is saying they'll go out to bid for a contractor in September," Hubbard said. He added, "From my perspective this is painfully slow." 

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