By SHERIDAN ROY
The Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) and VHB Engineering hosted a public informational meeting at the New Britain City Hall on Jan. 29 to hear from residents about recent updates on the gap closure study of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
The trail, when complete, would stretch from New Haven up to Northampton, Mass. Most of the trail’s construction is complete, however a gap remains in a portion of Southington and throughout Plainville. Southington’s section is beginning the final design phase. Plainville has one section, called Alignment C, that has been approved by the Plainville Town Council and is beginning its design phase.
In Plainville, alignment E is the “preferred alignment” proposed by CRCOG. picking up where C leaves off. It was selected after a comprehensive public survey. This preferred alignment also includes a branch off the rail-trail, which will connect with New Britain’s CTfastrak trail.
Once the remaining portion of Southington’s trail is complete, Plainville’s portion will pick up at the Southington-Plainville town-line and connect to Alignment E.
“We are in the beginning of the final design phase. Right now, we are waiting on the Department of Transportation to issue a payment authorization letter (PAL) to the town,” said director of public works Keith Hayden. “Once we get the PAL, we will sign the design agreement with BL, our design engineer. Then they will start the final design of the project.”
The town anticipates construction beginning in spring of 2020. Southington public works committee chair John Barry said he has been a longtime advocate for the trail’s expansion in town.
“The trail provides a more livable community and allows for healthy recreational options,” said Barry. “A vibrant community needs successful downtowns, and the community is seeing a positive economic climate because of the trail. I believe the trail provides for community pride, accessing history of our town that highlights the unique and positive attributes of our community.”
Plainville’s Town Manager Robert Lee showed support for continuation of the trail in Plainville. “I think alignment E is a good proposal. There are limited options from Plainville to New Britain,” he said. “This is worth pursuing, and there are great benefits to connecting the gap. Any issues can be resolved during the design phase.”
The Jan. 29 meeting was an open forum for conversation. Several locals shared comments both in favor, in disfavor, and merely in curiosity of the trail. Many of the concerns were in regards to safety and privacy.
One resident shared concern with putting up fences or sound barriers along trail sides. When out for a nature walk, she said, “you don’t want to be walking and only have a view of walls.”
Geoffrey Morrison-Logan from VHB Engineering said they wouldn’t want to obstruct the view, but that safety standards would be taken into consideration. He added there are many different options when it comes to the design phase.
“A trail is a cheap, healthy way to get from one place to another,” said CRCOG principal planner Tim Malone. “We never expected to get something as off-road as this and we thought this was pretty incredible. Safety is a great consideration.”
Alignment E is 92 percent off-road. It is 4.91 miles in length and proposed to be between 10 to 12 feet in width.
One Plainville resident was concerned that the trail, once complete, would fall on the taxpayers to maintain. He said it will need to be policed, and maintained by public works. He said the trail is a want, not a need.
Malone said all concerns would be taken into consideration, and if concerns outweighed the benefits, the decision and priority will be that of the town.
Countering the taxpayer argument, one resident said it depends on how you look at it. He said residents pay taxes to support the parks, and this is a linear park. It is a public accommodation, he said, for a different kind of recreation, and is something everybody can use, unlike a playground or soccer field.
Most other areas of the trail have been constructed or approved to be constructed on the historic canal, built in the early 1800s spanning 84 miles from New Haven to Northampton, Mass. Canal boats carried a variety of cargo through the Farmington Valley, but it was never able to turn a profit. In 1848 commercial operations of the canal ceased and the Farmington Canal Co. petitioned the legislature for authority to build a railroad.
By the mid-1800s, the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co. was complete from Plainville to the Mass. border. Over the years, trucks and automobiles increasingly took over freight and passenger service and rail service, and rail lines fell into disrepair. This led to the creation of the “Rails to Trails,” transforming these derelict corridors into a multiuse linear park.
Plainville’s railroad is still active, which is why it is still in the proposal phase while most other areas are in the design phase or complete.
“I have seen first-hand the benefits. I have had conversations with other leaders who expound on the benefits they see from the trail, and I have ridden the trail myself,” said Lee. “There are of course some challenges, but this is a linear park and we will maintain it like all of our other parks.”
Completing the trail through Plainville could take a few years. The town is currently in the project development phase. Next is design and permitting, then phase one, two and three of construction. According to a timeline in the study report, those steps would take a year each: five years total.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com