NEWBURYPORT — It can take the cutting of red tape to create a blue-ribbon outdoor experience.
Following up on the completion of the Clipper City Rail Trail I, a walking and biking trail winding 1.1 miles from the Merrimack River to Parker Street, city officials are making progress in their plan to extend the rail trail east along what is known as the City Branch, a former rail corridor that runs through the city's South End and along the waterfront.
The current rail trail I, which one can traverse from Cashman Park to the MBTA station adjacent to Route 1, has been adjudged a success by many who use it.
Now, city officials are pushing to extend the trail east from the boardwalk on the central waterfront to Joppa Park, though much of their work involves legal procedures rather than moving land and crafting walkways.
"The Rail Trail gets a lot of use, and I am often stopped when I am on the trail by people who are enjoying it," said Geordie Vining, senior project engineer who is supervising much of the extension planning.
"We are working to extend it, and it is a process of meetings and negotiation that takes time. But we are making progress."
Vining said that city officials will be holding a public hearing in late spring or summer to obtain resident input on the work ahead.
The City Branch corridor, which is long since abandoned, is a 19th century rail spur line that connected the city's waterfront docks to the main rail line that is still used today for the commuter rail. It was used primarily to bring rail cars to massive coal storage buildings that once stood on the city's central waterfront.
Traces of the rail line can easily be seen today. It runs along the waterfront, next to Oldies Marketplace and through several privately owned parcels. A long stretch of it behind the city's water treatment plant is used by some residents as a walking path. It emerges from the waterfront at Joppa Park, then cuts through the South End. It crosses under High Street at March's Hill, then skirts along the Newbury town line on its way to the main rail line.
Additional right-of-way agreements need to be secured, funds have to be raised for design, and permitting has to be finalized.
But several key easement agreements have been made with large organizations that historically do not move quickly.
The city has negotiated two long-term licenses from National Grid on portions of the City Branch corridor owned by the utility off Water Street, including the area of the substation.
In addition, the city recently secured a permanent easement from the Coast Guard property — after 10 years of negotiation — that will enable the path to be placed along the landward boundary of the Coast Guard station, also near Water Street.
City officials recently retained Stantec Inc., a Boston engineering and consulting firm, to provide surveying and engineering studies to keep the plan moving.
Design and permitting services will cost about $400,000, about half of which is in hand.
A request for the funds has gone to the Community Preservation Committee, which has provided funding in the past, and to other sources.
Looking into the future, planning leaders say that Route 1 is a major obstacle between the old City Branch rail corridor and the MBTA commuter rail station.
This connection is anticipated to be phase III and "will likely require a reconfiguration of the Route 1 rotary."
But such a project appears to be many years away.
For now, city officials are doing the heavy lifting — mostly of stacks of paper — to acquire the proper permissions and the required cooperation to move the trail east along the river.