Cycling advocates say linking the state's longest bike trail to CTfastrak would create an easy way for recreational riders or even commuters to get around more of the state without driving.
"It's more than just a trail — we're looking at it as part of a network," said Tim Malone, who heads a study team that's designing two potential bikeway routes through Plainville.
Malone's panel wants to close the so-called Plainville Gap in the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, that last major missing link in a 54-mile route between New Haven and the Massachusetts border.
Cyclists in central Connecticut got a major boost this summer when builders completed a more than 2-mile extension from Redstone Road into the northern end of Plainville. The work was more than clearing brush, putting down ballast and paving the surface: Contractors installed a 125-foot bridge above Route 6 in Farmington, long considered one of the biggest obstacles to finishing the route.
That still leaves a gap of several miles to Southington, where the main trail picks up. Almost all of the route is on abandoned railbed, but Pan Am still uses the tracks in Plainville. Engineers are working out the details for a way to bypass the tracks while keeping the trail mostly off roadways.
At the same time, they're laying out a proposed route for a roughly 4.5-mile east-west connector from Plainville to Columbus Boulevard in downtown New Britain. The version they're focusing on, called Alignment E, would be at least 92 percent off road, paralleling Woodford Avenue in sections and going under Interstate 84 as well as Route 72.
"Our city engineer and I walked through the woods and rights of way to see the alignment — I think it can work," said Mark Moriarty, New Britain's public works director and a prominent advocate for bikeways and bike lanes.
The Central Connecticut Council of Governments, where Malone is a principal planner, contends the connection would be a big boost for cyclists as well as transit riders.
"The connection to New Britain is an important one because for the first time, it would allow residents an option other than riding a bus or driving a vehicle to access the CTfastrak station and the existing multiuse trail to Newington Junction or commute to Hartford or other stops along the CTfastrak route," the agency says.
That would also give New Britain and Newington residents access to the Farmington trail, which is heavily used by cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, dog walkers and others.
Ultimately, it might also prompt Newington, West Hartford and the state Department of Transportation to look for new ways to connect the CTfastrak bike trail all the way into Hartford, advocates said. The trail runs from downtown New Britain alongside the busway, but ends in Newington Junction where CTfastrak's right-of-way narrows sharply.
"Getting the connection to New Britain would build so much energy to finish the route up from Newington," said Sandra Fry, Hartford's planner for cycling and pedestrian projects.
"We've been hoping the [state] DOT will pick up the idea that you need to address this gap — why have a path that ends in Newington Junction?" Fry said. "This could become a really important commuter route for the city of Hartford. And it's fascinating how paths change access, how they open up places."
Malone emphasized that planners are still in the initial phases of working out the two Plainville routes, and that construction is nowhere near imminent.
"We're in the planning phase; this hasn't been voted on by anybody yet, there's no funding identified. We have refinements to do before we present more at a public meeting in the fall," he said.
Details about the routes being considered are at gapclosurestudy.com.