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Concord rail trail planners urge state to buy abandoned line

  • Photos from a private site walk of the railroad right-of-way abandoned in 2017 by Pan Am Railways. Proponents of a rail trail are urging the state to take action on buying the rail line. Erik Paddleford—

  • Photos from a private site walk of the railroad right-of-way abandoned in 2017 by Pan Am Railways. Proponents of a rail trail are urging the state to take action on buying the rail line. Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail

  • Photos from a private site walk of the railroad right-of-way abandoned in 2017 by Pan Am Railways. Proponents of a rail trail are urging the state to take action on buying the rail line. Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail

  • A segment of newly abandoned railroad runs between Back Pond (on the left) and the Morrill Farm Dairy fields on Horseshoe Island in Concord as seen on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Rail trail advocates want the state to purchase the six-mile stretch of rail and convert the tracks into a multi-use trail. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail board of trustees members Bob Holdsworth and Dick Lemieux walk along a segment of newly abandoned railroad that runs through Morrill Farm Dairy fields on Horseshoe Island in Concord on Saturday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Overgrown vegetation covers a segment of the long-abandoned Claremont railroad line at the Pierce Manse in Concord as seen on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Overgrown vegetation covers a segment of the long-abandoned Claremont railroad line at the Pierce Manse in Concord as seen on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail board of trustees members Dick Lemieux and Bob Holdsworth ride bikes on the Northern Rail Trail in Boscawen on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Rail trail advocates want the state to purchase a newly-abandoned, six-mile stretch of rail from Concord to Boscawen and convert the tracks into a multi-use trail. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail board of trustees members Dick Lemieux and Bob Holdsworth ride bikes on the Northern Rail Trail in Boscawen on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Rail trail advocates want the state to purchase a newly-abandoned, six-mile stretch of rail from Concord to Boscawen and convert the tracks into a multi-use trail. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rail trail advocates in and around Concord who want to extend an existing 57-mile trail into the capital are pushing the state government to be more proactive about buying available land in the corridor.

Otherwise, they said, a newly abandoned six miles of railroad could sit idle for years under the ownership of Pan Am Railways, instead of linking the city’s downtown into a multi-use trail that already stretches to Lebanon.

Or worse: A private buyer could negotiate a deal and spoil the uninterrupted right-of-way.

The state has the right of first refusal to buy the new segment of abandoned railroad from Concord’s Horseshoe Pond to the Boscawen line. But it hasn’t entered into talks to do so since the abandonment became official in March, according to Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan.

“Everybody’s kind of waiting for somebody else to do something,” said Craig Tufts, a trustee of the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail. “If people want to see this happen, there needs to be some action, some prodding, some ownership of it.”

Tufts said observers need not look far to see the pitfalls that can spring up when an abandoned railroad is allowed to languish. In fact, an example of this phenomenon runs parallel to the newly available track.

A teachable moment

There are two railroad rights-of-way to the east of North State Street in Concord nearby the state prison. The one nearer to the road – less than 100 feet in some places – was part of a line running to Claremont that was fully abandoned by 2008.

The newly abandoned line runs nearer to the Merrimack River, all the way north past the old Sewalls Falls dam site and the Hannah Duston memorial.

The state didn’t want to buy the Claremont line when it came available, and so it fell into the hands of various private property owners or remained under Pan Am’s control, said Dick Lemieux, the president of the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail. Between Concord and Hopkinton alone, that once-continuous line has been broken up into more than 40 different parcels.

“I think of it as a huge mistake,” Lemieux said.

And in cases when railroads own but don’t maintain abandoned tracks, after a while, people begin to think it’s part of their yard, Tufts said, noting one case in which a property owner filled in their backyard and the tracks behind it, too.

“There’s a bunch of encroachments. Somebody built their back deck on it,” Tufts said. “This is why you don’t want to let things go, because once you do, it’s going to be more difficult and more costly to get things back, and people are going to start staking claims to it.”

Tufts and Lemieux said the state should learn from its mistake with the Concord-Claremont line and not repeat it with the newly available segment, which the trail builders consider to be far more valuable.

“This isn’t just a little tiny dead-end parcel like the Concord-Claremont. This is six miles of a continuous railroad corridor from White River Junction, Vt., all the way down to Massachusetts,” Tufts said. “It would be a shame to have this continuous piece of railroad bed broken up.”

Urging action

The Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, a nonprofit that hopes to create a multi-use path spanning Concord, launched a petition this spring to urge action from the state. Between paper copies signed at Market Days and the online version, it has surpassed 1,000 signatures.

“We want to make sure if the state fails to secure that right-of-way that they do it with the full knowledge that people want to see it purchased and turned into a public facility,” Lemieux said.

Craig Della Penna, a seasoned rail trail organizer and lecturer based in Massachusetts, said he expects the petition will be an effective way to make DOT officials aware of the support for the project.

“This is a DOT decision to make sure that the right thing happens here,” Della Penna said. “This is the same corridor that will connect to Manchester. This is big. They can’t just sit there and let (Pan Am) try to start selling off pieces to people’s bigger and better backyards. That just doesn’t make sense.”

State Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat who represents Concord and surrounding communities, said he plans to meet with DOT officials soon on the subject.

State’s planning process

Sheehan, the DOT commissioner, said her department maintains a 10-year plan to prioritize transportation projects – and the abandoned railroad isn’t yet represented on that list.

A slate of public hearings will begin in September to consider what projects should be added to the 10-year plan and how they should be prioritized, she said.

“Any new projects that aren’t already identified in the current 10-year plan, that’s the avenue to bring them forward for consideration,” Sheehan said. “The department doesn’t currently have money budgeted to acquire the corridor, so we would wait until we have a project officially introduced through the 10-year plan.”

The exception to that, she said, is if a third party makes an offer to buy a piece of the track. Then she has 90 days to exercise the right of first refusal and match the offer, according to state law.

“That may lead us to fast-track things if that were to occur,” she said, noting that such a plan would require legislative backing.

If only a small piece of the corridor was being sold, the department may be able to “move money around” or use its “meager budget for capital purchases” to match the offer, she said. Otherwise, the DOT would only be “reacting should Pan Am receive an offer from a third party.”

Nevertheless, rail trail advocates said they’re still uneasy about that scenario.

“It takes one property owner to approach Pan Am and say, ‘I want to buy this piece.’ If the state doesn’t step in and say, ‘We’ll take it,’ and that piece gets sold, it becomes a break in a continuous property,” Lemieux said.

According to the hundreds of comments on the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail petition, people from Concord and far afield would be upset by that outcome.

“The city has done so many great things in the last few years to update its image and bring in a positive community vibe,” wrote Andrew Crowley, who said he moved to Concord 10 years ago. “Let this be another shining example, and let this project afford more opportunities for folks in Concord and from elsewhere to see the beauty of Concord in places outside of downtown. This is an important and worthwhile endeavor.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)