Two (Maybe Three) Routes Recommended by Community Path Committee

As final reports go, the one produced by the 11-member Belmont Community Path Advisory Committee on building a two-to-three mile multi-use trail through the heart of the town is 103 pages of painstaking thoroughness. 

The assessment, delivered to the Belmont Board of Selectmen on Monday, June 9 at the board’s regular meeting at Town Hall, is chock full of photos, surveys, studies, comments and questions from public forums, analysis, detailed research and investigations that requires two appendix and 59 footnotes.

Committee Chair Jeffrey Roth, who has led the committee since it began in 2012, held up a paper-laden binder to the board, noting that it was one of four “just to give you an idea of the volumes of documentation and work that went into this report.”

Highlighting the report’s recommendations, the committee concluded that there are two routes – scoring highest using an evaluation criteria developed by the committee – from the Waltham line to the Brighton Street in east Belmont; one, dubbed the “priority route” relies on staying close to the existing, active rail beds including the north side of the commuter rail tracks adjacent Channing Road while the other, known as the “secondary” route, would go “off road” into the McLean property and utilize the southern (High School) side of the commuter rail tracks.

The report also goes into detail on mitigating the effects of the path on residential abutters specifically those homeowners along Channing Road, including the building of privacy barriers, a metal rail-with-trail fence, drainage and no lighting to name a few.

In addition to the paths, the report recommends the creation of a tunnel under the tracks at Alexander Avenue to Belmont High School – an idea first broached by town officials and residents in the late 1970s to create a safe passage from the Winn Brook neighborhood – as well as a possible pedestrian “underpass” beneath Brighton Street connecting the current community path from Alewife Station with the east Belmont section.

For more specific information on the routes and the recommendations from the committee, go to the Community Path Advisory Committee’s web page.

Unlike earlier reports and studies in the past two decades that failed to move the concept of a trail forward, it appears the committee’s report is not destined to be stashed away into a drawer at the Office of Community Development. While there was no vote on the committee’s recommendations, the Selectmen expressed interested in taking a series of steps to proceed towards conducting an engineering feasibility study and the creation on an “implementation” committee in creating a path that would become an important link in the 27-mile Mass Central Rail bike trail from Somerville to Berlin.

While there remains technical issues, concerns from abutters and the final determination of a route through Belmont, “[w]e need to come together supporting the idea (of a trail) and the trust of your report which is that Belmont needs a community path and has huge community support for it,” said Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas.

But before any option is considered, the town “will need to put skin into the game” by paying for a feasibility study to study the engineering issues facing the town, according to Rojas.

For Roth, the overriding trend he and the committee came away with is that from all the studies and meetings, “that it was simply that people want an off-road path. It certainly was a success in gathering information and helping people get excited about something and I think it will be an extremely positive thing for the town.”

Not everyone cheering

While Roth saw the nearly two-year effort as a positive effort, several in attendance, many Channing Road residents whose home’s backyards abut one of the preferred paths selected by the CPAC, expressed their dissatisfaction with the report.

“This is just a lot of back slapping,” said one resident after a statement from committee member Cosmo Caterino (who could not attend Monday’s meeting due to scheduling/traveling issues) was read accusing the committee’s majority of using “unethical” voting procedures in selecting the two preferred routes.

Caterino suggested research be done on reconstructing Concord Avenue, delaying its long-awaited repaving in 2015 with a plan of placing a “cycle track” – a bike lane protected by a physical barrier, such as a concrete curb – along the length of the busy thoroughfare. 

The report – a “shorter” (only 96 pages) draft dated May 19 can be found on the CPAC’s webpage on the Town of Belmont’s web site – goes over in great detail the history behind the path, the criteria used to whittle down from 35 different routes to the pair that were rated the best by the CPAC and recommendations for further action.

Roth said that while the committee used words like “priority” and “secondary” for the two trail selected, “all of these route options have very positive features” and would like for a feasibility study to review both options.

And many questions will need to be answered via the engineering study, said Selectman Sami Baghdady including attempting to resolve using private land on Clark Lane and at the Waltham line, the reliability of aluminum tracks under the Lexington Street and Trapelo Road bridges, the path’s dimensions along the route, elevations challenges and placing a trail along side a “live” rail bed.

For Baghdady, after walking the area with his five-year-old son along the north side of the commuter rail track, the idea of having high speed trains along a pedestrian way was difficult to comprehend.

“When that train went by, it was not family friendly,” he noted.

Nor were the Selectmen willing to limit the number of probable trails under study to just two. Selectman Mark Paolillo advocated an alternative route which would include the use of Clay Pit Pond and Hittinger Street for an additional “south” route for the engineering study to consider.

If there was one area that could come into Belmont’s favor is in funding the path. Committee member Vincent Stanton said the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation has determined that the Belmont trail is one of the top seven routes “it wants to complete” and is a high priority when coming to state funding, noting the state is paying from $7.5 million to $15 million a mile. 

Roth is recommending a permanent planning and construction committee be created “to take some of this off [the selectmen’s] plates” to focus on building the path while continuing the dialogue with residents and town and state officials.

The CPAC will hold its “final” committee meeting on Wednesday, June 11 at 7 p.m. in the Belmont Gallery of Art on the third floor of the Homer Building in the Town Hall complex.