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MILFORD

Residents embrace bike trail

Second section nearly complete

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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Peter and Sharon Millet walked their bikes along the path near Milford’s Louisa Lake because their 5-year-old son wasn’t quite ready to get back into the trailer behind his dad’s Schwinn.

The family had been out for a romp along the town’s nearly complete share of the Upper Charles River Trail, a multiuse path originally conceived to span towns from Milford to Framingham. It has been more than a decade since it’s proposal, and the plan has faltered everywhere but Milford, a blue-collar town that has embraced the recreational trail as a welcome escape from the traffic congestion so common in Boston’s western suburbs.

“We use it very often, especially myself. I run here, I like to mountain bike here. We love the trail. It’s a real asset to Milford,’’ said Peter Millet, a construction worker. “We were just talking about that as we were walking. We love it.’’

“It’s nice for us because we can actually ride it right from home,’’ Sharon Millet added. “It’s definitely a bonus for us. We just love to ride our bikes and be outdoors.’’

Their boy, however, has not yet pedaled past the big rock around the bend from the Dilla Street parking lot onto the blacktop ribbon with its very road-like yellow center line. The young family is content for now to haul him on their trips to Fino Field pool or the more secluded wooded areas skirted by the Upper Charles River Trail.

The Milford bike path eventually will loop more than 7 miles from the Hopkinton line through downtown and back to the Holliston line. The project is nearing completion of what the town refers to as Phase 2 of the trail, which stretches from the Milford Senior Center, across Route 109 and under I-495 along power lines to the Holliston town line. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is in the works for Sept. 24, according to Reno DeLuzio, former town planner and chairman of the Milford Upper Charles River Trail Committee. Phase 1, where the Millets were riding last Tuesday, stretches from downtown to the Hopkinton town line, skirting playing fields, woods, and water along the way.

A third stretch, linking the first two, is still being designed.

“I remember in the beginning the selectmen asking me, ‘Why do you think this will work in a blue-collar place like Milford?’ We said we don’t know - we are not the Minuteman Trail, with the historic district and all the tourism. We are not the Cape Cod Rail Trail; we’re not a vacation destination. But if we don’t try, we will never know,’’ DeLuzio said. “But it is now very popular. I run into people all the time who tell me what they like about the path. I have to ask them what they don’t like, but so far no one has anything to say.’’

Milford tackled the building of the rail trail as a transportation project, applying for federal Transportation Improvement Plan funding through MassHighway at a time when alternative modes of transportation were the buzz. Milford wound up shouldering just 10 percent of the roughly $1 million-per-mile cost to build the 12-foot-wide path. The project has cost about $6 million, DeLuzio said.

Flagging support and a weak economy appear to have thwarted the building of the rest of the Upper Charles River Trail. Since the trail’s conception in 1997, none of the other towns - Hopkinton, Holliston, Ashland, Sherborn and Framingham - has built a single mile of what was supposed to be a 27-mile loop linking the communities.

In Framingham and Ashland, the rail lines needed for the trail remain active.

In Hopkinton, the town recently won a state recreational trails grant of $17,000 to resurface part of the mile-long Hopkinton Center Trail with stone dust and gravel, but officials say talk of linking to the Milford bike path is premature.

“We are really not working very hard on that,’’ admitted Ken Parker, a member of the Hopkinton Sustainable Green Committee. “Our first effort is to improve the surface of the Center Trail. We need to get that done first.’’

While the success of Milford’s bike path - and its very visible road crossings complete with blinking lights and enormous bicycles painted on the road - has rekindled interest in an eventual link through Hopkinton, Parker and Peter LaGoy, chairman of the Downtown Revitalization Committee, said there is no easy way to make it happen nor a desire to replicate the blacktop trail.

“That’s a paved trail. We are not proposing to do that in Hopkinton. There are concerns here with the expense and with runoff,’’ Parker said. “Another reason we are proceeding so slowly is we don’t really have easy access between the high school and the Milford line. A lot of that is now private property.’’

The project hit other snags in Holliston, where officials had once secured funding for 2 miles of the bike path based on promises from Conrail to donate abandoned stretches of rail bed, including a magnificent eight-arch bridge of Milford pink granite. But the town had to return the money unused when CSX purchased the railroad and talks dragged on, said Robert Weidknecht, chairman of the Holliston Trail Committee.

CSX recently worked out a purchase and sale agreement with Holliston for about 2 miles of track and agreed to lease the town another 5 miles or so. Combined with at least one land donation in the works and properties already owned by the town, Holliston should have the entire 6.7-mile stretch from the border of Milford to Sherborn to work with by year’s end, Weidknecht said.

Still, Holliston has had to change its approach. So many other communities are vying for funding to build paved trails that Holliston has been told they would have to wait until 2025 to secure federal funds.

The trails committee is now relying on smaller recreational grants to surface the rail line with stone dust and gravel instead of blacktop. They recently received a $50,000 recreational trail grant from the state to begin the resurfacing and they plan to apply again so they can address the trail 500 feet or so at a time, Weidknecht said.

“There are some monuments out there along the trail - mile markers, cattle crossings, tunnels, and nice bridges,’’ said an excited Weidknecht, who often mountain bikes the abandoned railway now crisscrossed with hummocks left behind by dirt bikes and ATVs.

Sherborn, too, recently obtained a stretch of abandoned line from CSX near the Holliston border.

The quarter-mile section of trail passes through a vernal pool that floods annually long enough for damsel flies, frogs, and salamanders to spawn without interference from predatory fish, according to Sherborn Conservation Commission administrator Bridget Graziano. The town would like to purchase another mile or so of tracks, but CSX considers them to be active, she said. A spokesman for CSX did not return calls for comment on the rail trails.