Worcester, Mass.
April 26, 1998

Assabet River Rail Trail lines up support

By Lynne Tolman

   When they go to town meetings next month, proponents of the Assabet River Rail Trail will keep in mind some hard lessons they learned from Weston and Acton, where rail-trail opponents were organized and vocal.
   The Assabet trail is 12.5 miles of an old railroad bed, from Marlboro to Acton, that rail-trail advocates wanted cleared and paved as a path for biking, walking, running, and possibly in-line skating and horseback riding. The ARRT organization was conditionally awarded a $668,000 federal grant to acquire the land, and a 10 percent local match is required.
   Hudson town meeting voters will be asked May 4 to put up $20,500. Acton voters agreed April 6 to their share of $15,000, but the vote was very close and the debate echoed the Wayside Rail Trail defeat in Weston. In December, Weston voters rejected a proposal to pave a three-mile stretch of the former Central Massachusetts Railroad for a recreational path.
   Weston residents sounded the classic Not In My Back Yard alarms: Crime! Litter! Tax burden! Destruction of the environment! There go the property values! And where would all those out-of-towners arriving to run roughshod over Weston's "character" and "quality of life" park their cars?
   But bike paths are exactly what most homeowners do want in their back yards. In a 1992 National Park Service study, the majority of property owners near trails reported no increase in problems since the trail was established and said living near the trail was better than they had expected and better than living near unused rail lines. Most reported no drop in property values, and many buyers said the trail added to the appeal of the property. The majority of real estate agents reported no effect on property values, and more reported increases than decreases.
   Of 372 trail managers responding to a Rails to Trails Conservancy survey published this year, only 10 reported crimes against persons on their trails in 1996. RTC cites federal crime statistics showing that parks are safer from serious crime than parking lots, homes and streets.
   Weston probably enhanced its snob appeal by turning up its nose at a bike path. Heaven forbid the riff-raff from Waltham and beyond could roll through the town without an engraved invitation.
   Plans are moving forward anyway for the other 20 miles of the Wayside Rail Trail, in Berlin, Hudson, Sudbury, Wayland and Waltham. To get from Wayland to Waltham, trail users will just have to take a detour on public roads through Weston, or follow the bridle path that already exists on the rail bed, with a short detour through the center of town.
   ARRT member Jeff Richards doesn't anticipate Weston-type objections in Hudson, where the Wayside and Assabet trails would share about 1.5 miles. The Marlborough Branch of the old railroad has become an eyesore in Hudson, with shopping carts and other garbage dumped on it, he said, so sprucing it up for recreation is a popular idea.
   Bike paths are immensely popular with cyclists who just aren't comfortable with traffic on roads, especially families with children. Thousands of people every day use the Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Cambridge and the Norwottuck Trail from Northampton to Amherst.
   "We really have gotten people energized on turning these places into assets instead of liabilities," Richards said, counting the local Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups and town government among ARRT's supporters in Hudson.
   He said maintenance costs will be "pennies per year" per taxpayer, and abutters are invited to participate in the trail design, when options such as evergreen plantings or fences for privacy can be considered.
   Environmental objections are "kind of a red herring," Richards said, pointing out that trail users are helping the Earth by getting out of their cars. Although railroads today probably wouldn't be allowed to build tracks where they once did, their legacy of elevated berms create a path that's "typically high and dry," he said.
   Stow and Maynard voters will decide on their share of the Assabet acquisition money at town meetings May 18. Richards believes the trail has strong support in Maynard, while Stow "will be our other difficult test."
   Meanwhile, Marlboro and Hudson plan to seek bids for a design consultant for the first section of the trail, about four miles from Lincoln Street in Marlboro to downtown Hudson; $105,000 in federal funds has been awarded. And the Assabet towns have hired Avery Associates of Acton to appraise the land needed to continue the trail.
   Also, ARRT won a $3,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Management to hire an expert to assess natural resources along the trail, Richards said. "For example, we'd like to know, before we start negotiating to acquire the land, if there are any endangered-species habitats, and where any wetlands or vernal pools are," Richards said. Schoolchildren from all the towns involved will go on field walks with the natural resources consultant to help with the inventory, he said.
   Pennsylvania State Unversity was leading the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference going into this weekend's conference championship in Philadelphia. The top-ranked team for the season and top individual riders will advance to the National Collegiate Cycling Association championships May 16-17 in Greenville, S.C.
   Contenders with Central Mass. ties include Dartmouth College rider Robert Dapice of Concord and University of Massachusetts rider Chris McDonald of Hampden, who once rode as juniors with the Worcester-based Hot Tubes team. McDonald won criteriums March 28 at Columbia University and April 11 at Williams College, and Dapice won the crit April 4 at Dartmouth.
   The Granite State Wheelmen's Tri-State Seacoast Century on Sept. 20 in Hampton, N.H., is not a charity ride, but if you want to bike it as a fund-raiser for the Leukemia Society of America, you can join the charity's Team in Training. The Leukemia Society will send you a jersey and a training schedule and pay your entry fee ($10); in exchange, you must collect $1,800 in donations. Details will be explained at a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 10 Lincoln Square, Worcester. For more information, call (781) 329-9944.

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