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NY Times Article

New York Times

Road Bumps for an 84-Mile Canal Trail

Published: September 26, 2008

MARK Lander, a bicycling enthusiast, calls this section of the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway “my favorite ride in Connecticut,” and he hopes someday to be able to bicycle all 84 miles of the proposed recreational trail.
“I can’t wait ’til they get more of this done,” the Old Lyme resident said earlier this month as he and his son took a break from bicycling.

But at age 66, Mr. Lander isn’t sure he’ll still be pedaling by the time the entire stretch of the New Haven-to-Northampton, Mass., path is finally finished. “I suspect it’s going to take a while,” he said.

It has been 17 years since federal financing was allocated for the ambitious recreational trail, and key elements of the project have hit some snags:
In Plainville, activists are struggling to work out a deal with a still-active railway to use a portion of the line’s right of way. A stopgap measure of an on-road route to link completed sections of the trail in Farmington to the north and Southington to the south is under consideration.
In New Haven, the federal government has filled in a portion of an old rail tunnel that could have taken the bike trail under the city’s downtown. For security reasons, the F.B.I. didn’t like the idea of a tunnel running under its New Haven headquarters. A study is under way to plan an aboveground detour.

In East Granby, a long-awaited project to rehabilitate a 300-foot railway trestle to carry the trail over the Salmon Brook just got under way and won’t be completed until 2009. The state-designed work is expected to cost about $800,000 — a figure supporters of the bike path say is unnecessarily high. State officials insist the bridge must have a new concrete deck to carry emergency vehicles.

The Farmington Canal project in Connecticut has cost about $28.5 million since federal funds became available in 1991, state officials say. In this state, federal funds cover 80 percent of the cost and local communities put up the rest. In Massachusetts, the state finances the 20 percent local share.

“It’s been enormously successful,” said R. Bruce Donald, president of the Farmington Valley Trails Council.

He said a computerized laser counter on the trail in Simsbury logged 114,000 individual visits by walkers and bikers between November 2006 and November 2007.

“This year, the number is looking more like 190,000,” Mr. Donald said. He believes the big increase is due in part to more people using the trail to commute to work, especially since the price of gasoline has skyrocketed. “This isn’t just recreation — it’s alternative transportation,” he said.

The path follows roughly the same trail as the Farmington Canal, which opened in 1835. Boats carrying agricultural and industrial goods were able to travel with ease from New Haven all the way to the Connecticut River in Northampton.
Dreamers originally envisioned extending the canal all the way to the Canadian border. But flood damage and opposition from farmers pushed maintenance costs so high that expenses far outpaced toll revenue.

The canal was effectively closed down by 1843, just as railroads were beginning to take over as the prime method of transportation. The Farmington Canal had a much longer second life as a ready-made railroad route, one that remained in use until the 1980s.
The effort to give the Farmington Canal a third incarnation as a multi-use trail has had its greatest success in northern Connecticut.

Once the bridge over the Salmon Brook is completed, there will be a continuous 21.5-mile path from Farmington north to Massachusetts.

“What’s neat about all this is that it’s one of the first times I know of where you can use a multi-use trail like this for commuting, shopping, as well as just recreation,” said Mr. Donald.

The southern section of the Greenway, from Plainville to New Haven, will eventually cover 30.2 miles and is the primary focus of the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association.

Norman A. Thetford, the group’s executive director, said just 13.1 miles of the trail have been completed in Southington, Cheshire, Hamden and New Haven. He said many members of the group ask him when they will be able to use the trail to commute to New Haven.
Robert B. Rakowski, a state transportation supervising engineer, estimated it would take an additional $8 million to $9 million over five years to finish the New Haven pathway. “It’s one of the most difficult sections,” he said. “It’s going to have a lot of different agencies involved.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 28, 2008, on page CT2 of the New York edition.