Feasibility study for rail trail project funded by state

  • Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith discusses plans for the Rabbit Run Rail Trail project at a meeting of the town's Selectboard. Screenshot/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 7/8/2022 4:34:43 PM
Modified: 7/8/2022 4:34:38 PM

ATHOL — Director of Planning and Development Eric Smith recently received notification from the Baker-Polito administration that the town of Athol has landed a 2022 MassTrails Grant of nearly $32,000 to study the feasibility of developing a bike/pedestrian trail along the route of the long-defunct Rabbit Run Railroad.

Smith announced the awarding of the grant at the July 5 meeting of the Selectboard. Athol was one of 81 projects awarded a total of $11.4 million statewide. The state received nearly 170 requests for funding from MassTrails.

Smith explained that the amount of the grant, $31,943, represents three-quarters of the total cost of the feasibility study, pegged at $42,500. To qualify, the town had to commit to paying the remaining 25 percent, or $10,557. In anticipation of receiving the grant, voters at the October 2021 Special Town Meeting approved committing that amount to the project.

“The grant application was very well received by the state,” said Smith. “It (MassTrails) is under the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and they were really pleased to see this sort of effort taking place in this area. There’s all kinds of rail trails all over the state popping up, but there’s really none in this area.”

The rail trail closest to North Quabbin is the North Central Pathway, a portion of which runs along a former railroad right of way between the confluence of Green Street and Route 140 in Gardner to Summer Street, near the center of Winchendon. The entire trail, much of it paved, winds for nearly 16 miles between downtown Gardner and Toy Town center.

“This will be an opportunity to have one for the Athol area,” Smith continued, “should it all come to fruition.”

He then discussed the first step in reaching that goal.

“In terms of the feasibility study,” he said, “what it entails is basically reviewing the old sections of the old Rabbit Run Railroad right of way and trying to find out which ones are in public ownership and finding out which private owners are willing to work with us.

“We’ll also be looking into environmental conditions. In some cases, there might be stream crossings. We might have to build some bridges for crossings or culverts to run underneath (streams).”

The Rabbit Run Railroad — officially the Enfield & Athol Railroad — began operations in 1871, running through the Swift River Valley and ultimately connecting Athol to Springfield. The line was discontinued in 1935 due to the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir, which swallowed up Enfield and three other communities in the river valley.

The portion of the railroad bed in Athol runs roughly along South Athol Road from New Salem to downtown Athol. Smith said portions of the right of way are “ready to walk today.” One of those sections, he said, while a bit of a challenge to access, is in the South Athol Conservation Area off of South Athol Road.

Smith said the Worcester-based civil engineering firm of Howard Stein-Hudson Associates has been chosen to undertake the feasibility study. The same company developed Athol’s “complete streets” plan several years ago.

“They’ve done rail trails across the Commonwealth,” said Smith. “And the fact they did our complete streets plan gives us a good comfort level with the firm. They also completed the Millers River Greenway project, which came out of Orange’s planning department office, and we partnered with them. That project is supposed to eventually tie Riverfront Park in Orange to Rich Park here in Athol.”

Two options

In addition to examining environmental issues and right-of-way access and ownership, Smith said Howard Stein-Hudson will develop “two alignment options. We’re kind of looking at two different pathways.”

He said one option would allow hikers and bikers to traverse about 6.2 miles of trail from South Athol all the way to Gate 35 at Quabbin Reservoir, which is located in New Salem.

“We’re also looking at having it come back to downtown so people can maybe bike from the downtown area,” said Smith. “But there are more challenges trying to get the Rabbit Run into downtown than there is extending it south.”

The feasibility study, which will also include estimates for acquiring property and developing the trail, needs to be completed by the end of the current fiscal year in June 2023 but Smith is hoping it will be finished well before that.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com

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