On Friday, July 16th, Governor Baker signed the FY2022 budget which included sweeping funding and policy measures that will impact all of the Commonwealth. Included in this budget is a little known, yet crucially important, piece of policy that will help the state build its rail-trail network, specifically helping municipalities fund the acquisition of rights of ways by allowing them to use Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to purchase federally rail banked rail corridors for the development of trails. CPA funds are municipal taxes collected to be directed by City or Town committees and to be used for the purposes of creating affordable housing, funding historic preservation, and supporting open space for communities. Rail-trails, of course, fall into the category of open space. And this change to the CPA law would clarify that, if a municipality were to choose, they can use CPA funds to acquire rail right-of-way corridors.
This slight clarification of the CPA funding usage is absolutely key in a few places in the commonwealth where municipalities have the intention to spend their own CPA dollars to acquire rail-trail corridors but have faced challenges from opposing arguments using the fact that most rail-trail rights of ways are transferred over with long-term leases (perhaps 99 years) and not in perpetuity, since the National Trails System Act of 1983 stipulated railbanking as a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. This interim trail use of railbanked corridors has preserved thousands of miles of rail corridors that would otherwise have been abandoned, however opponents to rail-trails claim that in the rare case a corridor could, by law, convert back to rail use, then CPA funds can be challenged for this use. However, this has not once happened in Massachusetts where a rail-trail corridor has converted back to rail use.
And as land from rail trails usually comes together in a piecemeal fashion, it’s more of putting together a massive puzzle with pieces placed incongruously throughout the state, which is a difficult task considering the large number of landowners, abutters, and jurisdictions that these corridors impact. A rail-trail network and route is only as good as its weakest link, even if we have 110-miles of a trail planned out, such as the case with the Mass Central Rail Trail which will eventually go from Boston to Northampton, just one missing puzzle piece means we don’t have a contiguous and connected network.
Southampton is one of the communities who will benefit from this clarification that allows CPA funding to be used to acquire rail right-of-way corridors. Their missing piece of the puzzle will be a multi-use pathway, the final link of the longest interstate trail in the Northeast– the 84-mile New Haven & Northampton Canal Greenway. Someday, you’ll be able to ride a bicycle from New Haven Connecticut all the way into Northampton, where you can continue pedaling down the Norwottuck trail as it becomes the Mass Central Rail Trail. Which will one day take you over 100 miles east all the way to the Minuteman Bikeway – one of the most used bicycle commuter routes in the country. Though the last train passed through Southampton on this rail corridor in 1992, the Town is still in process of securing rights to the land in order to build their missing link to connect their residents and visitors to the hundreds of miles of high-comfort recreational and commuting routes. But through the CPA funding being included in the Governor's FY2020 budget, their work has gotten easier to push ahead the plan to secure the land, design the trail, and get it funded and built.
Over the past few years, Massachusetts’ rail trails have started to come together as the gem of both the transportation and recreation networks throughout the commonwealth. With over 400 miles already down statewide, and over 70 projects in the pipeline, we are seeing the knitting together of these linear park corridors as a legacy project for this governor and those in the EEA, DCR, and MassDOT. This network has been possible through the conversion of “dormant” railroad rights of way: long, linear, and continuous tracks of land that at one point long ago cut across our state and connected nearly every city and town. These trails bring about innumerable benefits to all citizens, providing long-distance, safe, and active transportation options free from the dangers of traffic, offering some of the most beautiful recreational opportunities in the commonwealth, increasing economic opportunities of downtowns and neighboring properties, and allowing residents of all ages and abilities to connect to communities across the entire state. You've most likely enjoyed a trail near your home or work, but imagine if your trail could continue and connect to bring you across Massachusetts.
The CPA funding policy change is supported by both House and Senate members and has been introduced as stand-alone bills submitted by Representative Carmine Gentile (13th Middlesex) and Representative Lindsay Sabadosa (1st Hampshire) and Senator James Eldridge (Middlesex and Worcester). Yet before the bills could be brought to committees for discussion, the Governor placed the Community Preservation Act rail-trail language into the budget, supported by Baker’s MassTrails team and those in the Dpt of Revenue, and also included as an amendment to the Senate budget by Sen. Adam Hinds.
The clarification to this CPA language is important for all the 187 cities and towns who have adopted CPA policies. But three key municipalities have put this issue on our radar. As mentioned previously, the town of Southampton is the one missing piece to fully assemble the 84-mile long New Haven & Northampton Canal Greenway. In Framingham, which just adopted the CPA last year, the City needs to acquire land from CSX Railroad in order to complete the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail to Sudbury where it connects directly to the 104 mile Mass Central Rail Trail. And in the more affluent metro-west regions, the town of Sudbury needs to acquire rights of way to extend their portion of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail that rolls through Concord, Acton, Westford, Chelmsford, and (one day) up to Lowell and trails along the Merrimack, connecting diverse communities and bringing together riders to all enjoy open space for recreation and transportation.
It was the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail who first brought this to MassBike’s attention to help unstick a few projects and their initial advocacy was key to making this big win for trails across Massachusetts possible. The inclusion of the CPA clarification in the FY2022 budget signed by Governor Baker will more forward crucial links in two of the commonwealth's largest trails projects and paves the way for future trails as we work towards a contiguous and connected network throughout Massachusetts.