Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail is full steam ahead

MIDDLESEX - State legislators representing both Lynnfield and Wakefield have hopefully secured enough money to finish design and feasibility study documents needed to bring a new recreational trail through both communities.

Last month, in two separate announcements, Beacon Hill delegates representing citizens in both towns announced they had steered some $600,000 in funding mechanisms towards the Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail project.

Under the proposal, a linear park and recreational pathway would be established along the abandoned Boston & Maine Railroad spur that was once used to ferry passengers and cargo towards Newburyport.

Beginning by the Galvin Middle School in Wakefield, the proposed 12-foot wide walking trail would head northbound into Lynnfield to the Peabody line, where it may eventually connect to a series of other recreational trails that run all the way to Salisbury near the New Hampshire border.

In total, the local trails would extend for 4.4 miles, with 1.9 miles being situated in Wakefield and 2.5 miles running through Lynnfield. If connected to other rail-trail corridors, users of the Wakefield-Lynnfield trail could conceivably use the pathway to reach a host of other communities, including Peabody, Danvers, Georgetown, Newburyport, and Salisbury.

In early August, the five Beacon Hill legislators who represent Lynnfield and Wakefield announced they had attached a $500,000 earmark to a $2.4 billion environmental bond bill that had just been signed into law by Mass. Governor Charles Baker.

According to House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading), the money is intended to be used to finalize a feasibility study for the trail, the construction of which would be managed by the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT).

"The Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail have been working for many years to build community support for this project. This feasibility study will bring them one step closer to realizing their goal of creating a multi-use rail trail," commented Jones in a prepared statement.

"This is a tremendous project which preserves our history while providing multi-modal transportation options for our residents. I was pleased to see this funding included in the bond bill," State Rep. Paul Brodeur, a Melrose Democrat whose district includes Wakefield, also remarked.

Other legislators involved in securing the $500,000 earmark were State Rep. Donald Wong (R-Saugus) and State Senators Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) and Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn).

Stuck at 25 percent design

Earlier this spring, MassDOT officials sought public input on a 25 percent design-stage package, which flushes out basic details about the route through the two communities and areas where roadway or wetlands crossing are necessary.

Based off of initial plans prepared by Woburn-based firm WorldTech Engineers, the 25 percent design was funded through an earmark in a 2008 state transportation bill. However, with that initial batch of grant money exhausted, Wakefield and Lynnfield officials have been looking for a way to pay for the rest of the engineering documentation.

This winter, Lynnfield's Recreational Path Committee, formed to conduct a comprehensive study of the remaining obstacles to the project, forecasted it would cost another $500,000 to move the project through MassDOT's 75-percent stage.

Members of Lynnfield's study group, which released its 19-page report in mid-February, have acknowledged a number of controversies surrounding the initiative, including questions as to whether the community would bear some portion of the remaining design process.

With groups in Lynnfield and Wakefield pushing for the recreational trails for well over a decade now, the cost of the undertaking has climbed dramatically since it was first proposed. In fact, back in 2007, when Lynnfield and Wakefield officials jointly hired an engineering firm to conduct an initial feasibility study, the project's price-tag was pegged at roughly $4.4. million.

However, nearly a decade later, an updated estimate by MassDOT cited a $9.2 million budget.

Though the construction of the trail is supposed to be funded entirely by state and federal sources, which won't be available until 2021 at the earliest, there have been questions as to whether local tax dollars would be needed to finalize the design.

"[T]here will still be a funding gap for the engineering costs, even if all identified funds are available. The towns can work with the local legislative delegation to determine if Transportation Bond Bill funding can help close the gap, but it is reasonable to anticipate that Lynnfield and Wakefield will need to support the project with some local funding," the Lynnfield Recreational Path Committee concluded.

A few weeks ago, Lewis, Brodeur, and Wong revealed they had secured yet another $100,000 to bridge that funding gap through a Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) grant.

"I'm very pleased that the Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail project is receiving grant support to augment the hardwork and local advocacy of the Wakefield community," said Lewis in a prepared statement. "This project will expand recreational opportunities for people of all ages, promote health and wellness…and support local businesses and economic development."

The grant funding will come from federal revenues raised through gasoline taxes off-road vehicles.

Just this past spring, Wakefield residents overwhelmingly approved a Town Meeting article that sought permission for town leaders to enter into a 99-year lease with the MBTA for control of the railroad bed where the new hiking trails are proposed.

However, that easy local victory contrasted sharply with a similar proposal that went before Lynnfield's citizens a year prior, when Town Meeting attendees by a single-vote margin okayed the lease of Lynnfield's railroad right-of-way.

This spring, Wakefield officials at the annual assembly acknowledged there is considerable opposition to the rail-trail in the neighboring community, where a number of residents and town officials have challenged whether the project will result in increased crime and other public safety impacts.

Opponents in Lynnfield are also concerned about the trail's potential impact to wetlands around Ready Meadows, a swath of marshland situated along Summer Street.

Part of the remaining design process will involve a more comprehensive study of how to route the trails through the Ready Meadows area. So far, options for achieving that feat have included proposals to build an elevated boardwalk or to re-route the trail around sensitive portions of the wetlands that are prone to flooding.

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