The Mass. Pike is probably the last road in the state you'd want
to bicycle on, but cyclists can thank the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority for
breathing new life into a 113-year-old idea: Turn the old Central
Massachusetts railroad line into a bike path.
Under pressure from legislators outside Route 128 to remember projects besides the Big Dig in Boston, the Turnpike Authority has earmarked $1 million a year for local public works and tourism efforts. A $30,000 Turnpike grant funded a state transportation study, released this month, that found it feasible to pave 23 miles of the defunct rail line, from Berlin to Waltham, as a recreational trail for cyclists, in-line skaters, joggers, walkers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders and wheelchair users.
A nonprofit citizens group called the Wayside Rail Trail Committee is pursuing the idea, which was first suggested in 1874 when the railroad went bankrupt and idled the line from Northampton to Boston. Passenger service ended for good in 1971.
In Berlin, Hudson, Sudbury, Wayland, Weston and Waltham this spring, town meetings, selectmen and town councilors are being asked to endorse the rail trail proposal. State or federal money would be sought for construction, and the towns would have to pay to maintain and police the trail. Together, that would cost the towns an estimated $50,000 per year, or 35 cents per resident, according to the feasibility study. Sudbury voted yes last week, and the Berlin town meeting is May 5.
If the towns endorse the rail trail, their regional planning agencies can begin negotiating with the MBTA, owner of the land, to lease the right-of-way, and they can seek funding -- most likely from the Massachusetts Highway Department -- to design the trail.
Based on counts of users of the Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Cambridge, the study authors estimate 700 to 1,400 people in each town would use the Wayside trail on any given weekday, and more than twice that on weekends and holidays. Estimates are even higher if based on counts from the Norwottuck Trail, the 9-mile bikeway from Northampton to Amherst on the western end of the Central Mass. rail line.
Bikeways like these don't always appeal to road cyclists who like to ride far and fast -- they get crowded with skaters swinging their arms wide and walkers pushing baby strollers -- or who need to get somewhere off the path.
But such bike paths are immensely popular among riders who just aren't comfortable with traffic on the roads, including many families with children. And their existence often is the eye-opener that government planners need to make them realize that bike-friendly road improvements also are worthwhile -- that there are thousands of cyclists out there, and they will use roads to get to the bike path.
To support the Wayside Rail Trail, contact Andy Greene of Waltham by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-893-6758.
Other rail trails in the area's future include:
TIP OF THE HELMET _ To Bridgewater State College for inducting 1899 world bicycle racing champion Marshall W. "Major" Taylor into its Hall of Black Achievement this year. Taylor, who lived in Worcester, was the second black athlete to become a world champion, following bantamweight boxer George Dixon in 1891. The League of American Wheelmen had banned blacks from amateur bike racing in 1894 but let Taylor register as a pro after he unofficially broke two world track records in his native Indianapolis in 1896.
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