Needham could have a new two-mile recreational path within the next few years if plans for the Bay Colony Rail Trail move forward as projected.
On Tuesday, Feb. 29, selectmen unanimously voted to authorize Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick to send a letter to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which owns approximately two miles of abandoned railroad tracks running through Needham, requesting that the MBTA consider drawing up a lease for the property.
Tad Staley, founder of the nonprofit Bay Colony Rail Trail Association, said the MBTA has expressed interest in the reuse of the property for this purpose and in the past has leased land for similar projects for $1 per year over 99 years.
Needham is one of several communities looking to develop a connected path that stretches seven miles from Medfield in the south (1.5 miles), up through Dover (3.5 miles) and through Needham from Needham Junction to the Charles River (2 miles), crossing into Newton.
Each town would have a separate lease with the MBTA and is looking to develop its own stretch of trail, although the final goal is to have one continuous path for passive recreational use—walking, running and biking.
The tracks through Needham have not been used since 2008 when the former operator, Bay Colony Railroad, stopped service, Staley said. MBTA officials have said reuse of the tracks is not part of their transportation plan at least through 2035, and have even "aggressively" pushed the idea for the rail trail project, Staley said. The MBTA could later revoke its agreement with the town if officials determined the land has other uses.
“The MBTA is actually pushing this, because this is a liability to them,” Staley said. “It’s their property and, while it remains untended, it’s a liability.”
The issue of liability to the town is one that still needs to be reviewed before Needham proceeds with any upgrades to the property, Staley said. But the nonprofit group would likely take care of maintaining the trail, with volunteer trail stewards helping out. Town departments might be asked to pitch in with snow and ice removal or tree trimming, if the town agrees to it.
Staley said the conversion of old railroad corridors to recreational paths has cost upwards of $1 million per mile and taken decades when done as rigorous, government-sponsored projects. But the Needham trail is expected to cost much less and will be paid for through fundraising, without town money.
“Our target is to build this at no cost to the town and to raise the funds privately,” Staley said.
The Bay Colony Rail Trail Association has had discussions with an organization that will remove the steel rails and replace them with crushed stone at little to no cost, as the value of the rails the organization would keep would cover the cost of construction, Staley said.
“It’s a promising prospect, because we could replace these ties—which aren’t very passable—with a very walkable trail at nominally no cost,” Staley said.
Both Medfield and Dover have official town committees formed to work on the project and have already sent letters of interest to the MBTA, Staley said. While Needham has not formed an official rail trail committee, about 20-30 Needham residents have volunteered their time to help with research for the project, and 100 Needham High School students are involved in a service learning project in support of the trail.
Staley provided a timeline for how the project might proceed over the next three years:
• 2012: The town could: evaluate and possibly sign a lease from the MBTA; hold public hearings with residents (especially abutters whose property lies along the tracks); discuss the project with town departments to make sure all involved parties are aware of any issues; determine what liability issues there might be for the town; and define its partnership with the nonprofit Bay Colony Rail Trail Association.
• 2013: The town committee could design and complete access points and crossings and have the rails and ties removed and the new surface completed, while the nonprofit group could seek funds for a finer surface as well as access and bridge repair work.
• 2014: The nonprofit organization would look to rehabilitate the trestle bridge over the Charles River, which would connect the path to Dover.
All four selectmen said Tuesday that they fully support the project and were eager to see it move forward.
Selectman John Bulian said the trail could become “a tremendous asset to the whole region.”
“It will provide just a wonderful resource for the residents,” he said.