The first phase of a cross-city trail proposing to go through downtown was denied a substantial federal grant recently. But its proponents are eyeing other opportunities to forge a new path through the heart of the city.
The Merrimack River Greenway Trail aims to give pedestrians and cyclists a paved route to Pembroke and Boscawen, connecting into the broader Granite State Rail Trail, which hopes to one day stretch statewide from Lebanon to Salem.
It has the backing of the city, which last year applied on its behalf for an $800,000 federal Transportation Alternatives Program grant. But it narrowly missed out on the funding this month.
Out of 43 proposed projects, the state Department of Transportation administered $6.5 million to pay for 12 initiatives.
The Merrimack River Greenway Trail came in 15th, marking its second denial for the biennial pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure award. The first phase, as proposed in the grant, would have connected Loudon Road and Manchester Street via a ¼-mile-long boardwalk over wetlands.
“We’re disappointed, of course, but we’re going ahead with other plans in other parts of the city,” said Dick Lemieux, the president of the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail.
It’s a setback that “means the public probably won’t see anything on the ground for another couple years,” he said, but in the meantime new opportunities have come to light.
Lemieux said he’s intrigued by the discussion engineers are having about how to widen Interstate 93 and extend Storrs Street. He’s hoping the trail can be incorporated into those plans, connecting the area of the Capitol Shopping Center to Horseshoe Pond, where a to-be-abandoned railroad runs to Boscawen. If the city could acquire that corridor and turn it into a rail trail, it would lead to the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail, ending in Lebanon.
The magnitude of the I-93 project in particular – which may require at least a partial demolition of the Burlington Coat Factory location and the diversion of railroad lines – puts into flux an area that could be an important link for the trail.
“The area between Burlington Coat and the Pierce Manse is all being redeveloped on drafting boards right now,” Lemieux said. “So there’s an opportunity – probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to sort of thread the Greenway Trail in that area.”
The overhaul of I-93 also inspired another idea, which could be Lemieux’s biggest ask. He pictures a footbridge spanning the Merrimack River south of Loudon Road as a way to link other segments of the trail and reconnect the downtown to the river.
It would be a major project – and if it’s too costly, the trail could also cross along the Loudon Road bridge – but if it’s ever going to happen, it would likely be in conjunction with the I-93 work, he said.
“We’ve talked about the design and the dream of connecting downtown with the river, and the dream of incorporating walking trails in the downtown area,” he said. “Now, all we need to do is implement it, and we have an opportunity to do that.”
To the extent that his plan helps bring the city closer to the river and improve its image from the highway, Lemieux has found allies in the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce.
Chris Carley, an architect who is a member of the chamber’s Creative Concord Committee, said he hopes to revive some of the ideas that his committee has considered now that plans are in motion for the highway expansion.
“There was a general consensus of the people who worked on this that the river could be an asset to daily life in the city, but we really can’t get to it very well because of the way the highway is positioned,” Carley said.
“There’s a lot of stuff floating around at this point. There’s graphic material; there’s reports – some of them have an inch of dust on them,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to blow that dust off.”
Tim Sink, the chamber president, agreed. The pedestrian bridge would be “very challenging,” he said, likely requiring funding above and beyond the highway project. “But if we’re ever going to be able to accomplish those objectives, absolutely, now is the time,” he said.
“I think we should be thinking bold now,” Sink said. “All our dreams may not come true, but unless we think big, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)