THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Phase one of rail trail to open Sat.

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2009

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After nearly 25 years of planning, funding constraints, environmental obstacles, and privacy concerns among abutters, the first phase of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail will officially open Saturday.

The 6.8-mile, 10-foot-wide paved trail, which traverses woods, wetlands, open fields, and shopping areas, starts at the Cross Point Towers in Lowell, goes through Chelmsford, and ends at Route 225 in Westford. It cost $4.8 million in state and federal funds to build.

“I never gave up on it, but I really wondered if I’d be here to see this,’’ said 84-year-old Daphne Freeman, widow of Bruce Freeman, a former state representative from Chelmsford.

Bruce Freeman started researching the idea for a bike path in 1985 after seeing one in California. He died in 1986 before the project got off the ground.

The northern phase, which took two years to build and was funded with state and federal funds, is just the beginning of a 25-mile trail along former railroad routes that will go from Lowell through Chelmsford, Westford, Carlisle, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury, and end in Framingham.

“I think it’s such a happy thing,’’ Daphne Freeman said. “It’s good for people’s health, it’s safe, and it’s good for the environment.’’

Freeman and her family will attend Saturday’s ribbon cutting, which will be held at 10 a.m. at the Old Town Hall in Chelmsford center. An opening celebration on the town common will follow.

State Highway Department Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky is expected to attend the event, along with other local and state officials.

Paiewonsky said the trail is one of her favorite MassHighway projects, because it’s a good example of strong collaboration between the state and local groups.

She said rail trail projects have been hampered in the past because of funding problems and opposition from residents who worried about environmental impacts and property values. But people have come around and she thinks rail trails will only become more popular.

“We have found that they get easier and easier to design and build as we have more successful examples,’’ Paiewonsky said.

The trail will be open for non-motorized uses: cycling, jogging, walking, skiing, and roller blading. There is some fencing along the trail to protect neighboring properties, including some environmentally sensitive areas.

As of now, the only designated parking area is in Chelmsford.

“My whole dream was to ride from my house and go to the movies in Lowell, and I can do that now,’’ said Emily Teller, Westford’s representative on the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail board of directors. “It’s just so peaceful, calm, and friendly. It’s connecting communities.’’

Though the first phase is opening now, it could be another decade before the entire trail is completed, said Dick Williamson, Sudbury’s representative on the Friends’ board.

The second phase of the trail is 13.1 miles in Westford, Carlisle, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury, and the last phase is 4.6 miles in Sudbury and Framingham.

In some communities, like Concord and Sudbury, the project has stalled over concerns about the impact on the environment and abutters, Williamson said.

But the biggest roadblock has always been funding, he said.

Design work has started in Westford, Carlisle, Acton, and Concord and funds have been appropriated to complete those plans.

But securing construction funds is another story, Williamson said.

Acton and Concord have engineering estimates that show the average cost at about $1,000,000 per mile, due to major bridge work and road crossings.

Officials say costs for the other phases may vary based on the ease of construction or if there are special needs such as bridges or highway crossings.

Concord will require two bridges - one across the Assabet River and one across Route 2. Acton will require six brook crossings and a crossing of Route 2A and 119.

The project has been included in a federal regional transportation plan for 2020. Williams said it’s good news the project is on the priority list but disappointing it’s so far out. However, Williamson said, there is some hope that the trail can move up on the list if federal stimulus funds can be used.

“It’s still a long way,’’ Williamson said. “If might happen in the next decade if the earmarked funding comes along.’’

Plans in Sudbury and Framingham are well behind those in the other communities. Design work hasn’t started and right of way issues still exist, Williamson said.

Williamson said in order for that phase to get in line for federal and state funding, it needs to move forward with the design phase. He said Sudbury has community preservation funds that can be used toward the project. Williamson said he hopes they can be appropriated in the next year or so.

“If it wasn’t for the fiscal situation, we’d be entering into the design this year,’’ Williamson said.

Members of the Friends group are optimistic that once people start using the trail, its success will provide momentum for the next phases.

Tom Michelman, an Acton resident and president of the Friends group, said the first phase has taken a long time but he hopes the next two will move more quickly.

“We can point now to a section being done,’’ he said. “We’re getting a very good reaction and you’ve got to start somewhere. I think as people get used to it, they’ll use it more and more - for errands, for commuting, for going to school, and other short trips. It’s going to become a loved resource.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.