Greenway's Gaps Remain

Courant Staff Writers

Pedaling south on the Farmington Valley Greenway from Copper Hill Road in East Granby, bicyclists ride through a solid 2 miles of forest, fields and streams before the trail ends abruptly at Route 20.

End of the line.

The old train station is easy to spot across the street, but the railroad right of way simply vanishes into thick woods. Greenway advocates say they could easily extend the paved path along that old rail bed, but they wouldn't get a quarter-mile before hitting the last major obstacle on the 22-mile route - Salmon Brook bridge.

The 270-foot-long span used to carry freight trains 35 feet above the water, but has been idle for 24 years. Shrubs cover it on both banks, a white birch has grown through the rotting deck and several broken railroad ties have collapsed into the brook.

But the Farmington Valley Trails Council sees the rusting bridge as potentially one of the Greenway's most appealing spots. Much like a similar bridge in Farmington that was renovated this spring, the Salmon Brook span would offer stunning views to pedestrians and bicyclists, the council says. And it would go a long way toward completing the rail trail.

All told, $6.4 million in federal transportation money has been earmarked for the Greenway, and about $3.4 million of that has been spent, said Bill Grant of the state Department of Transportation.

The gaps along parts of the Greenway appear to be on track to be completed in the next several years:

  • From the state line at Southwick, Mass., south to Phelps Road in Suffield, about a half-mile that includes two very short railroad overpasses.
  • From the Suffield line south to Copper Hill Road in East Granby, about nine-tenths of a mile that also has one or two short water crossings.
  • From Route 189 south to Floydville Road in East Granby, more than eight-tenths of a mile that includes the bridge across the Salmon Brook, which could easily cost more than a half-million dollars.
  • From Floydville Road south to the Simsbury line, about 1.6 miles that includes the Imperial Nurseries farm owned by Griffin Land & Nurseries Inc. The company, which wants to avoid having the trail bisect its busy farming operation in East Granby, has agreed in principle with East Granby and Granby to an alternate route along the perimeter of its property, which would take the trail into Granby. Granby officials welcome the prospect of offering residents direct access to the trail. The company has offered $50,000 toward that solution. Local officials have promised a public meeting to present the plan this fall, possibly as early as next month.
  • From Drake Hill Road to Sand Hill Road in Simsbury, a segment of about 1.9 miles that includes an alternate route around the perimeter of Dyno Nobel, the former Ensign-Bickford Co. blast-detonator manufacturing operation, and a section through a condominium and townhouse complex called Hazel Meadow. Ensign Bickford had granted an easement for the alternate route to keep the trail from following the rail right of way through the potentially hazardous and high-security operation, said Rich Sawitzke, Simsbury's town engineer. Dyno Nobel, a Norwegian firm, bought Ensign Bickford Co. last year and the agreement for the easement is still in place. The alternate route will mainly hug the company's property near Route 10, then go eastward into woods and then back on the old rail bed at the northern border of Simsmore Square, the site of a fire that destroyed a commercial building in April. Along the 8-mile spur from Farmington to Collinsville, there's just one gap: A stretch of about 2 miles from Unionville northwest to roughly the Burlington border. Bikers and walkers are now diverted onto sidewalks in Unionville, then onto the shoulder of hilly and heavily used Route 4. Farmington plans to remedy that by paving the rail bed through to River Road in Unionville, then digging a tunnel beneath Route 4 and linking to the Greenway in Burlington, said Bruce Cyr of the town's engineering department. In each town, the council has a few volunteer coordinators and usually a few passionate backers in town government. Without them, the trail wouldn't happen, said Stephen Noble, treasurer of the council. "To do any of this stuff, you have to have a champion, someone who really believes in the concept and will go to bat for it. In East Granby, [First Selectman] Dave Kilbon is an ardent supporter - and we need him with the Salmon Brook bridge," Noble said. The Greenway roughly follows the route of the old Farmington Canal, which linked Northampton, Mass., to New Haven in the early 1820s. It was the longest canal ever built in New England, but failed financially and was replaced with a railroad after 20 years. The rail line was named the New Haven & Northampton, but the Northampton to New Haven route was known as the Canal Line. The Greenway's Collinsville spur follows the path of a Central New England Railroad line that reached New Hartford. Virtually all of the rails are gone, but a few short stretches can be spotted in the woods of East Granby and across Mather's Crossing, a private road in Simsbury. There are a few converted rail stations along the Greenway, and an unusual sight - a towering wooden trestle that curved off the main line still stands just beyond the Big Bird bridge over Route 4. It once carried boxcars directly into the second floor of a mill. Two spots to see the history of the route are in Simsbury and Collinsville. At Canal Place off Hopmeadow Street is a secluded 1,000-foot stretch of the original canal, with both old towpaths intact. And at the Canton Historical Society, railroad enthusiasts have created an elaborate model train layout depicting Collinsville at the height of the rail boom, when lines to Simsbury, Farmington, Winsted and New Hartford converged near the old Collins Axe Co. Even if the trail were finished now, there'd still be more to do. Regional planners envision the trail reaching from New Haven to Northampton. To the south, there's already a bikeway along another stretch of the old New Haven & Northampton Railroad line in Cheshire and Southington. But that's split from Farmington because trains still use the track in Plainville in between, making a link on the rail bed impossible for now. Even extending the Greenway to the southern tip of Farmington would be tough; the original bridge over four-lane Route 6 was torn out long ago, and the best alternative is a costly tunnel, said Cyr of Farmington's engineering department. The town isn't actively considering the idea, he said. North from the Suffield border at Southwick, Mass., the long-abandoned rail bed is overgrown. Planners in Massachusetts hope to start building half of Southwick's section of the trail this winter, and then design the other half. En route to the final destination of Northampton, the trail runs into another obstacle: Southampton voters have flat-out rejected the project. One solution would be to detour the Greenway along rural roads to the east, skirting the entire town, said Jeffrey McCollough, transportation planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. But all of those challenges are petty compared with the political threat facing the nationwide Rails to Trails movement. A congressional committee chaired by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., is moving to gut the formula that ensures federal funding for greenways. States now must use 10 percent of their federal highway grants on projects like bike trails and pedestrian paths, and that money provides the heart of most rails to trails budgets. Istook's committee wants to remove the requirement, and greenway supporters fear that cash-strapped state governments would then likely divert the money to standard highway construction. The House of Representatives is set to vote on the formula today, and greenway advocates are encouraging trail users to contact their congressional representatives on the issue. "That vote is critical," McCollough said. "It will set the tone for what happens in New England and across the country." Locally, the federal government has paid about 80 cents of every dollar for the Farmington Valley Greenway construction. The Department of Transportation administers the money, and requires each town along the route to come up with its 20 percent matching share. When construction ends, each town takes over maintenance of its stretch of the path, treating it as a municipal park. "We're out here every week in the summer. You get vegetation creeping in, leaves and tree limbs on the ground - something a roller-blader could trip over," Ebbe Blomstrand said on a sunny July morning. A crew leader for Farmington's public works agency, Blomstrand supervises a worker driving the trail in a modified John Deere tractor with a leaf blower. Volunteers also pitch in. Individuals, families and businesses agree to maintain a specific mile of Greenway. "Once a month does it," said Gil Anderson, who is assigned a stretch in southern Simsbury. "You pick up litter, but there's not much of that. People who use the trail don't throw rubbish." Anderson, a retired computer programmer, was the Greenway's first volunteer maintainer. He has cleaned his stretch for nine years now. "It's great for people. I see a lady who has got to be in her 80s out there riding a three-wheel bike, and I have granddaughters I let roller blade on the trail because it's safe. I couldn't do that on a road," he said. "The trail gets people out to exercise. We keep hearing Americans need to get out more, that so many of us are obese," Anderson said. "Plus, this is convenient and easy to use. For a lot of us it's local." Len Tolisano, retired Simsbury town planner, shares Anderson's enthusiasm. Tolisano helped secure the original federal funding for the Greenway, and supervised much of the design. "If I had to identify one thing in my life I'm proud of, other than being a father and husband," said Tolisano, "I'd say it was having something to do with creating that trail."
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