Your Town Tuesdays: Sudbury

Sudbury at a Crossroads

By RICHARD FRIES, Executive Director

SUDBURY, Mass. (March 8, 2016) - The statewide online trail map developed by David Loutzenheiser of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is perhaps the greatest resource available to any Massachusetts bike advocate. Pore over those lines and one quickly beholds  the enormous opportunities of the next decade in Massachusetts.

Green dotted lines show promise where trails are proposed. But of all the locations on that map, one particular nexus stands out: Sudbury.  And the next month will see critical meetings and hearings regarding the future of bike paths in Boston’s MetroWest region.

In Sudbury there are not one but two dotted green lines on that MAPC map. Currently lacking any off-road trails as of this writing, Sudbury could host the nexus of both the Bruce Freeman Trail, running through 10 communities from Lowell to Milford, and the MassCentral Rail Trail, an ambitious 104-mile path connecting Boston to Northampton.

“The Bruce Freeman has been in the process for 20 years,” explained Loutzenheiser. “That trail is moving south in the next couple of years.”

The first phase of the Bruce Freeman is complete. Nearly seven miles of trail is open from Lowell to Westford. Construction is under way in Acton, Westford and Carlisle. There is solid progress on the design of a bridge over the Concord River, the largest geological impediment to the project.  

Riders who enjoy Sudbury’s country roads and farm stands may not recognize the demand for such a facility. But the impacts of those routes, with an intersection of two paths, could re-imagine transportation and recreation in Sudbury. This sleepy suburb could enjoy enormous economic benefits without the traffic, noise and confusion typically associated with development. Both of those paths offer connection points with commuter rail lines running from Boston to Worcester and Fitchburg. Loutzenheiser notes that the Bruce Freeman, running north and south, will have more recreational character while the Central Mass, running east and west, would have more of a transportation focus, connect users to several commuter rail stations and ultimately a route into Boston.

In some ways, the Bruce Freeman trail has been the hare with the ambitious Central Mass Rail Trail playing the part of the tortoise. “I would not say it is the tortoise,” said Loutzenheiser. “They have the links but not the resources. They are trying to push the ball forward to build the trail. (Department of Conservation and Recreation) has the 99 year lease for the 26 miles from Waltham to Berlin.”

But Sudbury has presented some of the more difficult political impediments.  “It’s part of the greening of things that rail trails were seen as a newfangled thing in New England 15 years ago,” explained Craig Della Penna, the former Rails to Trails Conservancy rep in New England. A Realtor, Della Penna is the first real estate agent in the U.S. that focuses on properties along rail trails. “There were about a dozen rail-trail wars where projects were voted down. In Sudbury there was a pretty sophisticated opposition. They played hardball and that caused some of the more well known environmental organizations that had been supportive to fade away into the background.”

The significance of the Mass Central cannot be overstated. At its eastern tip it would connect with the Minuteman and Somerville networks at the Alewife MBTA station. To the west it would intersect with not only the Bruce Freeman, but also the Assabet River trail in Hudson, the Ware River Trail in Barre, and then at its Western tip connect to the Norwottuck system that links Amherst to Northampton. Other trails to the south could ultimately link to the Farmington system in Connecticut. Visionaries see a bike rider rolling from Boston to New Haven without once being on a roadway.

Recent developments along the Central Mass project may see that tortoise - at least in Sudbury - overtake the hare. Della Penna credits Dan Driscoll, the DCR’s director of recreation facilities planning, for working for five years to secure a 99-year lease from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to use the corridor for the Central Mass Rail Trail. That represents the key 26-mile section between Waltham and Berlin.  

But like most bike facilities, the cost of the work - grading, drainage, bridgework - has proven prohibitive in a society that gives little priority to such projects. That may change.

Enter Eversource  

Every New Englander can recall the ferocious ice storms of December, 2008, that left more than a million residents - many in this region - without power for weeks. Utility companies were unable to service those powerlines crippled by falling trees.

Eversource, which provides electricity for most of the region, is overhauling the entire grid to improve access to all of its power lines. Their contractor’s recent report shone a light on one key corridor: the Central Mass  Rail Trail.

“Independent Systems Operators of New England is tasked with increasing the reliability of electric power throughout New England,” explained Dick Williamson, the Sudbury representative on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Committee. Eversource’s contractor “ISO has identified a problem with electrical power to Hudson.  ISO has identified the need for a line from Eversource's Sudbury substation west to Hudson.  Several routes have been studied, but one route stands out, namely a transmission line along the Mass Central right of way.  The substation sits alongside the right of way.”

“It provides an opportunity to build sections of the trail - at least the subsurface - but also may pose a significant impact to the rail-bed in terms of tree clearance and wildlife habitat,” said Loutzenheiser. “Each town will need to evaluate their best course of action.”

There are issues. The contractor is recommending a clear-cut 82-foot wide corridor, which has fueled opposition from abutters. Many wish to see the lines buried, which would only require a 35-foot wide corridor.  But that increases the cost from $50 million to $100 million. And this all gets tacked on to people’s electric bills, spurring some arguments to do nothing at all.

Curiously, this has not sparked any reaction against the bike path specifically to date.

“There is a lot of support in general in the towns,” explained Loutzenheiser, noting communities that questioned such trails 15 years ago have come to appreciate them as an asset.  Through repeated use of the corridors simply as footpaths in towns along the Mass Central route the corridor has been set aside to serve as a greenway.

Della Penna is equally optimistic. A soft-spoken bear of a man, Della Penna has regularly hosted dinner parties with the most strident and hysterical opponents of rail trails, carefully noting all of their issues. He also keeps attuned to any abutting properties that come on the market and finds pro-path buyers.

He spoke publicly last week on the project in his hometown of Florence, a neighborhood of Northampton where an open section of Mass Central Rail Trail passes less than 10 feet from his house. “Right now we have 85 miles of the 104 in the corridor in a protected status,” said Della Penna, noting the state will be formally developing an analysis of the few gaps left.  In fact there are more than 200 projects within 100 miles of Northampton. What is being developed here is the densest network of paths in the nation right where people live, work, play, and go to school.

But this massive piece between Waltham and Berlin could be fast tracked with Eversource providing key sub-surface work on the corridor.

“The final decision on the project will be made by the state level Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB),” explained Williamson. “There will be a lot of lobbying between now and the EFSB submission, tentatively scheduled for late spring.”

Want to Know More?

There have been several meetings and hearings. To look at the Eversource presentation made to the Sudbury Board of Selectmen last month, click here: Eversource Sudbury Selectmen Presentation

Additionally there will be an update on the status of the Central Mass Rail Trail on Thursday, April 7, at 9:30 a.m. at the Sudbury Town Hall.


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