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Local leaders call for DCR action on Nashua River Rail Trail

State agency looking at funding repairs on 11-mile trail

View from the Nashua River Rail Trail in Groton. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
View from the Nashua River Rail Trail in Groton. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

GROTON — After pressure from multiple municipalities and members of the state Legislature, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation is expected to take the first of many steps to address structural and safety issues of the Nashua River Rail Trail.

The state agency is “looking into devoting funds” to deliver much-needed repairs to the 11-mile trail, according to state Sen. Jamie Eldridge. The action came after a letter, sponsored by the governing bodies of Ayer, Dunstable, Groton and Pepperell concerning the present condition of the trail and lack of reconstructive action by DCR was shared with the Baker-Polito administration back in August.

Eldridge said DCR is expected to send out a contractor to “assess the scope of necessary repairs” in the near future, while a site visit by members of the state Legislature was likely to occur at a to-be-determined date.

Groton Select Board member Peter Cunningham, who penned the letter to the Baker-Polito administration, said DCR’s “neglect” of the NRRT has been an “ongoing problem for several years now,” but he was cautiously optimistic about the development. Eldridge called it a “step in the right direction,” but hoped to receive “more of a firm commitment” from DCR to the trail soon.

“This is certainly a positive,” Cunningham said. “But, at this point, the trail needs a complete reconstruction, so I hope this serves to address more than just spot repairs in certain areas.”

“Those sort of quick repairs, they might take care of certain sections for a few years, but then you’re right back at square one and none of us want that,” he said.

“Obviously we want more of a firm commitment, but it’s a start,” Eldridge said. “DCR doesn’t receive adequate funding — that’s something that I think has played a part here and where I believe the legislature needs to continue to increase investment — but the fact that they responded to our inquiry, I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

A trail assessment conducted by DCR back in 2017 acknowledged the need for major repairs and listed 2022 as the year of the NRRT’s “anticipated reconstruction.” That said, and, according to Cunningham, while DCR has shown an ability to prioritize and properly maintain other properties managed by the agency, the NRRT has received little more than patchwork restorations, which has led to numerous “safety concerns and incidents.”

As far as the NRRT is concerned, significant funds are available to DCR courtesy of state Sen. Ed Kennedy and the Transportation Bond Bill that was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker back in January 2021. Still, as of now, DCR has failed to take the necessary steps to secure those funds and apply them to the trail.

Cunningham called the neglect of the trail by the agency in the intervening period “extremely frustrating.”

“A lot of the time when you deal with public policy issues, it’s always a question of resources, not enough money for this or that,” Cunningham said. “But that’s not the case here — this is more of a question of momentum, starting the process of accessing and applying for those funds that were specifically earmarked for this.”

“Even back (in 2017), DCR recognized the trail needed to be rebuilt. Obviously, that’s not happening and I know there are a lot of factors that play into it, but recognizing that the resources are there, the fact that the agency hasn’t taken the steps to make this happen is extremely frustrating,” he said.

Neither Cunningham nor Eldridge expects significant action by DCR until the next state administration is in place after November’s General Election. Until then, both urged locals and frequenters of the NRRT to lobby their local legislators for support.

“I know plenty of people have, but we need to continue to advocate with our legislative representatives,” Cunningham said. “They need to continue to hear from us, we need to continue to push if we want to see DCR and the state take the proper action.”