Report due by fall on Bennington-Pownal-Williamstown trolley trail bike path

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BENNINGTON — A feasibility study for a proposed bike/pedestrian path along the former trolley route from Bennington to Williamstown, Mass., is moving toward a final report and recommendation by the end of the year.

Catherine Bryars, Community Planning Program Manager with the Bennington County Regional Commission, and Mark Anders, the BCRC transportation program manager, recently met with select boards in Pownal and Bennington,

They said an ongoing field feasibility assessment continues this summer, and outreach has begun to gather comment or concerns from officials and residents in the three communities. A similar meeting is planned with officials in Williamstown.

Bryars said Wednesday that the current timetable for the scoping study calls for continued assessment of route alternatives during July and August and for public presentations of the route options in September.

A final presentation is scheduled for October with the study report currently planned for November.

Overall goals

Among the overall visions for the project, which would include a path from Bennington through village centers in three towns and cover about 12 miles, is to eventually link with the existing Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Berkshire County, Mass. With other Vermont trails linked in, Bryars said that could create a pathway covering some 45 miles in total, which would likely become a major recreation facility and tourism draw.

The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, which opened its first segment in 2001, extends 12.7 miles from near the former Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough, Mass., through Cheshire, Mass., into Adams, Mass.

In addition, efforts have been underway for several years to extend the route north into North Adams and Williamstown, and biking enthusiasts also have pushed for extension of the trail south through Pittsfield, Mass. and into southern Berkshire County.

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Beyond recreational motivations, Bryars said commuting to work via bicycle is fast emerging as an alternative to driving, and the popular option of electric bicycles has accelerated that trend — and is becoming another impetus for completing a trolley trail project.

The ongoing study here was first suggested by Anders, Bryars said, after he had attended a Historical Society talk by Joe Hall about local trolley systems and the Berkshire Street Railway system, which operated in the area from 1907 to 1929. At that time, the local system, like most street railway or trolley systems, was rendered obsolete by the emergence of the automobile.

Challenges

In establishing a route for the path, Bryars noted there are some difficult challenges, as is common to all recreation path projects. Those include acquiring the needed funding, right-of-way impacts and acquisition, and crossing water or other environmentally sensitive areas.

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The old trolley line property also was gifted to local landowners during the 1940s, she said, meaning there are a number of landowners involved.

There also is a section near the Williamstown border that runs along the current Pam Am Railways rail line, she said, but there is an abandoned track alongside the active line that possibly could be utilized.

Bennington Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell, who is the regional director with the Vermont Land Trust, said during the presentation Monday that he is familiar with putting together workable right-of-way agreements and recognizes who difficult that can be.

However, he and other board members praised efforts to create a recreation attraction that could prove a benefit for residents and attract tourism dollars to the area.

During a previous meeting with the Pownal Select Board, Anders said the current scoping study was funded by the state, and he believes that if the pathway is built it will be largely funded and later maintained by the state, as is the case with the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Massachusetts.

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Bryars said this week that there is a possibility local support could fund an interim path in some areas since a state-sponsored project would take several years to develop, but the ultimate path would be built and managed by VTrans.

The old trolley route stretches south from the area of Main Street between Morgan and Beech streets in Bennington.

It moves through the town-owned Greenberg Headwaters Park east of Morgan Street, then into Pownal to Peaks Pine Road and toward the historic red trolley powerhouse on Route 7 near the Barber Pond Road intersection; then down the ridge toward Route 346 and to Church Street; then south toward the existing railroad line just east of the Hoosic River, past the former Green Mountain Race Track property and into Williamstown.

Citizen group

Bryars said the BCRC staff is working with a citizen steering committee on the project, with members from the three communities.

"The steering committee is a citizen advisory group that will provide input on the trolley path scoping study report as it's developed over the next several months," she said Wednesday. "It currently has about 10 members from across the three communities in the study area, and we're seeking additional members with interest and time to contribute to the project."

She said interested persons can contact her at cbryars@bcrcvt.org or by phone at 802-442-0713, ext. 310.

More information is available on the BCRC website, www.bcrcvt.org.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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