ACTON - It’s only 25 miles from start to finish, but the steps to completion of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail have sometimes made the end feel far away.
About two-dozen residents turned out June 12 for a preview of the initial design plans for the trail, one of the last steps before the design is reviewed by the state.
Town Planner Roland Bartl and a team of consultants presented aerial maps of the 4.6-mile stretch of abandoned railroad tracks with the plan for the trail superimposed on them. The trail will follow the tracks of the old New Haven Railroad Framingham & Lowell line, which comes into town from the Westford-Carlisle line, follows Route 27 south to Route 2A and crosses into Concord.
The trail is named for former state Rep. Bruce Freeman, who first proposed converting the disused stretch of railroad tracks into a bike and walking path in the 1980s. The plan languished after Freeman’s death in 1986, but regained momentum with the formation of the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, a nonprofit organization, in 2003.
“This meeting is a huge milestone and the response, which is support and trying to get educated, is incredibly rewarding,” said Tom Michelman, an Acton resident and president of the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. “Everyone can see this is going to be a great project.”
In addition to recreation, advocates of the trail say it will be a boon for local businesses and ease traffic in the area by providing an alternate route from one end of town to the other.
Construction on the first section of the rail trail, a 6.8-mile stretch through Lowell, Chelmsford and Westford could begin as early as this fall.
The design for Acton’s section of the trail, which is nearly ready to be submitted to the Massachusetts Highway Department for review, still has some kinks — especially the dilemma of how to get pedestrians safely across Route 2A/119, which bisects the trail.
“Route 2A and 119 is, I think I can say, MassHighway’s biggest concern,” said Christer Ericsson, senior vice president of Greenman-Pedersen Inc., the consulting firm that has been working with the town to develop the design. “How do you cross bikes and pedestrians around 25,000 cars?”
Ericsson outlined several options for solving the problem, including a footbridge; a tunnel under the road; a roundabout at the intersection of Route 2A and Davis Road; and a stoplight or flashing yellow light where the trail meets the highway.
The footbridge proposal drew uniform support from the audience.
“I think the only options you should be pushing are the bridge over or the tunnel under. Everything else just looks like foolishness,” said Norma Wu, a North Acton resident.
Ericsson said the cost of constructing a bridge, roughly $1.5 million, would be less than the total cost of putting in a stop light, which would require widening Route 2A to prevent traffic backups.
“I thought the cost of the bridge would be prohibitive, but that’s fantastic,” said Antonio Santoro, an East Acton resident. “I think a bridge would be great.”
Rabbi Yosef Polter called the bridge idea “a no-brainer.”
Ericsson said rail trails typically cost about $1 million per mile, plus the cost of adding bridges or intersections, but that cost will be covered by the federal and state governments.
Funding for the project has to compete with other road, highway and rail trail projects around the state. The state originally had construction for the Acton section of the rail trail on the funding schedule for fiscal year 2008, but pushed it back to 2010.
“We’re going to try to do what we can to make sure it doesn’t slip,” said Bartl.
Michelman said his organization would push the state to move funding for the project forward to 2009.
“I’ve been here for 24 years and I’d like to see it to be done while I’m still here,” said Wu. “I have grandkids that are 4 who I’d like to take there.”
Christian Schiavone can be reached at 978-371-5743 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.