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Progress being made on Granite State Rail Trail

By summer’s end, the long-awaited Granite State Rail Trail will be a step closer to completion. Work on a 59-mile segment, the Northern Rail Trail, will be finished. But while that news will be welcomed by bicyclists, the funding and construction of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail through Concord – considered by some to be the linchpin to a network of bike paths stretching from Salem to Lebanon – still faces challenges.

“The last stretch we’ll finish this summer is viewed as the completion of the rail trail in Merrimack Valley,” said Alex Bernhard, board chairman for the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack Valley. “We’re dying to have that Concord connection done.”

The Northern Rail Trail would link Boscawen to Lebanon, and last week, the group announced it received a $30,000 grant to connect the bike path in Boscawen from Gerrish Station 2 miles south to River Road.

The city of Concord and the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway are also beginning work on the first phase of a trail through the city.

“I refer to Concord as the golden spike,” said Dick Lemieux, board president for the Greenway friends group. “We see it as sort of a necessary connection.”

The challenges for the stretch through Concord include the lack of railways no longer in use, as well an estimated $12.2 million price tag for the entire project.

“There are some real challenges,” Lemieux said.

Most of the existing rail trails were built along state-owned property.

The state purchased the Northern Rail Trail in 1995 to preserve it for future freight or passenger railroad service. Eventually, it decided to use it for bike paths. Four years later, it bought another stretch between Lebanon and West Lebanon.

With volunteer groups assuming most of the stewardship, the state’s network of trails has grown.

The Northern Rail Trail is now the longest in New Hampshire and was recently named one of the top 100 trails in the country, according to the Rails and Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

But building a rail trail bike path is a different challenge for communities without the state-owned railroad beds.

“Between Manchester and Boscawen, any rail corridor that might be considered for a rail trail is in private hands,” said Larry Keniston, an engineer with the state Bureau of Rail and Transit.

Like Concord, Manchester and Hooksett’s rail corridor is privately owned and still in use. Any project would involve an agreement with the owners, he said.

“The long-abandoned Concord and Portsmouth Railroad corridor through Hooksett, Allenstown, Pembroke and Concord could be considered for a trail connection if the current private owners are amenable,” Keniston said.

The lack of rail trail options in Concord prompted the friends group to move forward with an off-railroad trail. The group is looking at different options, but its preferred route would run through property owned by the Department of Corrections.

“We would be plowing up new territory,” Lemieux said.

The first stretch of Concord’s trail is in the design phase and would include about 1.3 miles of city-owned property on the east side of Merrimack River, from Terrill Park near Manchester Street to the post office on Loudon Road. It is only one piece – and would cost about $2 million – but it represents a commitment to linking Concord with the larger network, Lemieux said.

While the city continues its push, the greater rail trail continues to be cobbled together with more than 22 groups working through the New Hampshire Rail Trail Coalition. Each group works independently, with its own budget, volunteers and staff.

“Every link is important, and Concord is central because it’s the capital. It’s a big town, and it’s right in the middle, so there is a lot of significance,” said Craig Tufts, a transportation planner with the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission who also serves on the board for the Greenway friends group.

Setting a timetable for finishing the Granite State Rail Trail is difficult because volunteers or bike advocacy groups typically construct, insure and maintain nonmotorized trails they develop in their towns.

“Both the department and the public benefit from the development of abandoned rail corridors into trails, but nonmotorized trails are, currently, generally driven by local municipalities,” he said.

Between Salem and Manchester, the state Department of Transportation owns most of the rail corridor, with exceptions in Derry, at the Londonderry town line, and a stretch near the Manchester airport, which is owned by the city.

“To varying degrees, these sections of trail outside of (Department of Transportation) ownership present challenges to the integrity of any continuously accessible rail trail that is separated from motor traffic,” Keniston said.

But pieces are in place to make the regional line a reality, especially once Concord is online.

“The beauty about rail trails is they go to the center of every community and they are able to connect all of these communities, and open space is a great thing if you live in downtown Concord and can ride out into the woods where there are more trails,” he said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com)

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