You can buy a T-shirt in London that says "Mind The Gap," the popular message of caution to London Underground riders. In Connecticut we need to produce a T-shirt that says "Close the Gap," a message of hope to Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway bicycle riders.
The greenway is an 84-mile multi-use trail that runs from New Haven to Northampton, Mass., in the right of way of a historic 19th-century canal and rail line. The trail has been built, section by section, over the past two decades and is extremely popular with bikers, walkers, runners and rollerbladers.
But on the Connecticut portion of the trail, there are still two gaps: a 4.7-mile discontinuity in Cheshire and a 9.1-mile breach mostly in Plainville, with a little bleed over south to Southington and north to Farmington.
The gaps force riders to use local roads, which are neither as safe nor as scenic as the trail, nor as likely to generate economic activity. Close these two gaps and there'll be a bike trail, with just a couple of small on-road jogs, across the entire north-south spine of the state. It is now possible to hop on the trail in Farmington, ride to Westfield for lunch, and catch some lovely scenery en route. The Canal trail is part of the East Coast Greenway, an urban trail system being built from Maine to Florida.
The trail is a tremendous asset. People want to use it, live near it and, increasingly, connect their businesses to it — trail-oriented development. Real estate ads trumpet proximity to the trail. There aren't many long riding trails in New England, so this one is even attracting tourists.
The remarkable news, as longtime volunteers know, is that the state is actively supporting the trail. For much of the last two decades, it has been local activists who've pushed trail construction; state officials often were indifferent. But now, both the commissioners of the state departments of transportation and of energy and environmental protection, James Redeker and Dan Esty, as well as Gov. Dannel Malloy, understand that bicycling is a recreational as well as a transportation asset and have made completing the Canal Greenway a priority.
So the moment is here to get these gaps closed.
The Cheshire gap indeed is being closed; town officials say they will be in construction next year for a central portion of the gap, and that the DOT is designing the remainder for construction in two to three years.
Plainville is the tough nut, in large part because the town has active rail lines in the rail corridor. But local and state officials are talking with Pan Am Railways officials about acquiring easements within the railroad right of way, in part of town at least, for an extension of the bike trail.
The right of way is wider in some places than others, depending on how the old Canal Line Railroad developed. In part of Plainville, it is 150 feet wide, which should allow train passage and the bike trail. Both exist in many corridors around the country, including parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It's known as "rail and trail," and is a good model.
The railroad is owned by Timothy Mellon of the famed Mellon family, which has been very generous to a certain college in New Haven. Hopefully Mr. Mellon will see the public relations and promotional advantage, as other companies have, of having hundreds of people pass his facilities every day.
Getting the Canal trail finished will be a great day for Connecticut, and allow us to get a few more trails underway.