Four years after proposing a rail trail spanning Newton, Needham, Medfield and Dover, the project is still slow, but finally picking up speed. The south section (Red Wing Bay at the Dover town line to Needham Junction) is being studied by a consulting firm, and town meeting will be asked to support leasing and construction. However, the fate of the North section, 1.1 miles from the Newton town line at the Charles River behind Staples to the new Senior Center at the MBTA Needham Heights commuter rail station, is still up in the air. Converting this section into a greenway will result in a low stress bicycle route between the towns of Newton and Needham, greatly increasing safety to bicyclists, and making an easy and safe walking path for our new Senior Center and residents of the expanded Wingate assisted living center on Gould Street. Residents of Evelyn Road will have a pleasant access to Needham Heights and Newton, for biking, walking with friends, family and dogs. Unfortunately, with the current state of affairs, this prime open space will turn into a wasteland consisting of unused, decaying rail tracks overgrown with weeds and various trash strewn around, as well as the arsenic from the rail ties seeping underground. In addition to the squandered recreational opportunity, the inaction on the North section will result in depressed neighboring property values as well as potential environmental hazard.
The good news is the recently released MAPC study of using the rail line as a bus bypass road to avoid congestion on Needham Street in Newton resulted in a conclusion that was cool to the idea of a bus sharing the narrow rail trail with walkers and pedestrians. Calling the proposed bus project “costly and challenging”, there was little to encourage the town of Needham to pursue a bus option rather than commencing active planning for a rail trail. Newton has engaged with Iron Horse, a New Hampshire-based non-profit, to construct their mile with a free or low cost surface in autumn of 2013. Iron Horse is ready, willing and able to proceed south from the Newton town line, constructing the free or low cost path simultaneous with Newton, also in the fall of 2013. Iron Horse can build the North section in Needham in 2013 while doing the section in Newton, thereby connecting the two towns with a linear bicycle and pedestrian greenway.
A few challenges remain, such as designing good safe road crossings at Gould and Webster Street, but the Needham DPW and Traffic Management Committee have long experience in road calming and traffic management. Engineering problems are their specialty and the traffic volumes are well within normal range for rail trail crossings, with many successful local examples of crosswalks and push-button light signals including the popular Minuteman Bikeway in Lexington.
The final challenge is the bridge over route 128, scheduled to be removed in 2016 as part of MassHighway’s Add-A-Lane project. However, MassDOT has repeatedly re-affirmed its commitment to replace the rail bridge and is waiting for the town of Needham to specify the purpose of the bridge. The MBTA has previously studied extending a Green Line spur from Newton to Needham Heights and found it prohibitively expensive and has not included it in their 30 year funding request. The recently released MAPC bus-bypass road study has removed bus traffic as a feasible use of the bridge, so the only remaining option is the most inexpensive – a bicycle and pedestrian linear park greenway rail trail bridge.
We urge the town of Needham to collaborate with Newton and MassDOT and the Needham Heights community to commence planning the rail trail, in particular to utilize Iron Horse to construct a basic free or low cost path in 2013, and submit a request for MassDOT to replace the existing bridge as a bicycle and pedestrian bridge several years from now when the Add-A-Lane project gets to that area of their project. Taking these steps is financially prudent and responsible, and will result in a safe low-stress crossing over route 128, for today’s residents and generations to come.