AMESBURY — Citing Amesbury as a crucial player in linking walking and biking trails with surrounding communities, residents urged municipal councilors last week to continue pursuing missing pieces of the trail network.
"The whole point of these trails in Amesbury, Salisbury and Newburyport was to have a continuous connection from town to town," said Salisbury Selectman Jerry Klima, who is also a member of the Coastal Trails Coalition. "If any of those links don't happen, the chain is broken."
Klima said Amesbury is looking at two points where connections need to be made in order to complete the network of trails that runs through the three towns.
The first missing piece is a link between a biking and walking path that will be alongside the new Whittier Bridge crossing over the Merrimack River. Public access to the path from Amesbury will be from Old Merrill Street, just east of Interstate 95. Work on the bridge is expected to start next year.
It will also cross Main Street, an already popular biking and walking route that runs along Point Shore and into downtown. The question now is how to connect the two pieces, something Klima said he'd been working on with Amesbury's director of Community and Economic Development Joe Fahey, as well as the state.
"Mass DOT (Department of Transportation) isn't going to connect Main Street to 95; we know that," Klima said. "But if we can come up with the money to design a plan with the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, we can go through the Merrimack Valley Transportation Improvement Plan to secure state and federal money to get it done."
The MVTIP is the same group that secured the funding for the area's existing bike trails.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer said that while the connection is still a possibility, it will have to be looked at by MassDOT as a separate project for financial and scheduling reasons.
"Because we have federal funding on the Whittier Bridge, the project has to come in on budget. Anything over would become the responsibility of the state, plus the project has to be completed by 2016 or we lose all of our federal funds. MassDOT is not taking on any projects that will jeopardize this one," Kezer said.
Karen Soldstad, a member of Amesbury's Planning Board, voiced her concerns to councilors.
"Part of Mass DOT's mission statement is to support all modes of transportation, including intermodal. These trails key in on that statement. I don't want to see this go the way of previous trail connection talks, where it looks like it will happen and then falls apart," she said.
The other missing piece is a connection between the Salibury Ghost Trail, the western end of which is at Rabbit Road in Salisbury right next to I-95, and Amesbury's Riverwalk trail, which terminates behind Carriagetown Marketplace.
To make it happen, the trail will have to run under I-95, across land that is not owned by the town and into the Golden Triangle, an area that Amesbury officials have been trying to make more commercially appealing.
"Salisbury's trails run across private land, but we were able to get easements from the owners to go onto their property. The same could happen in Amesbury," Klima said.
Trail links were supposed to be made on old railroad beds running behind the shopping center, but National Grid power lines took precedent. A hotel has also been proposed on the land being looked at. Klima said that there is room to put in a path next to National Grid's lines. National Grid has refused to grant access on the grounds that they don't allow public access around their power lines.
Solstad referred to the potential hotel property as critical, saying it would be a huge loss to the community if a connection behind Carriagetown doesn't happen.
She has been pushing for the connections since Stop & Shop first came to Amesbury. At the time, Solstad said it was a condition of their approval that they put in the bike path connection themselves. But the property was part of an easement given to National Grid. Because of the easement, the town granted the grocery store an amendment to their agreement, relieving them of the responsibility for the bike path. Stop & Shop in turn put $20,000 into an escrow account to pay for paving to be dealt with at a later date.
"It fell by the wayside," Solstad said.
As a result, it's now a condition of Planning Board site plan reviews that any developed property abutting a bike path must allow for an easement for the bike path and building it.
"If the town can't hold them to that, then shame on them. We'll wind up with a mile-and-half-long trail connected to nothing, while the rest of Massachusetts is able to go from Boston to New Hampshire," Solstad said.
Salisbury, Newbury, Georgetown and Boxford recently secured Mass DOT approval to access federal highway funds obtained by Rep. John Tierney to design 16 miles of the Border to Boston trail.
Kezer said that connections are still on the table, and talks are still in progress with the involved parties. He has called his conversations with National Grid productive, saying they're "supportive of seeing these connections made" but that a balance needs to be struck to keep all parties happy, including those behind new developments, like the hotel.
"We don't want to impose so many burdens on a development that the project is crushed," he said.
Municipal councilors assured Amesbury residents that their urging was not falling on deaf ears.
"As a town we need to show DOT that these connections are a priority to us. It's a call to action," Councilor At-large Anne Ferguson said.