Credit: Town of Needham

The Select Board learned the results of a feasibility study on the construction of a trail link between Newton Upper Falls and Needham and discussed the benefits of a pedestrian/bicycle-only path versus one that could also accommodate an electric shuttle at its meeting last week.  

The proposed trail would start at Oak Street in Newton and end at Webster Street in Needham, traversing the unused right of way of the Bay Colony Railroad. It would connect with the mile-long Upper Falls Greenway. This plan could revive the vision of a rail trail that would someday be a continuous path from Newton to Needham and on to Dover and Medfield. 

That goal became much less attainable after the rail line’s bridge over Route 128 was removed a decade ago during the Add-a-Lane Project. This study, overseen by the engineering firm GPI, offered likely costs for reconstructing that bridge and for building the entire 4,000-foot section. 

Credit: Town of Needham

The Select Board was presented with four options. The pedestrian/bicycle-only path is estimated to cost $22.7 million, and the options that include an electric shuttle ranged from $47.7 million to $58.8 million. GPI estimated the project would take at least seven years to complete with an annual inflation rate of 4%. 

Carolyn Radisch, GPI senior project manager, said typically the town would pay for about 15%, mostly for design and engineering.  The rest would be funded by state and federal grants. 

“Personally I don’t find the idea of an electric shuttle appealing,” said Select Board member Heidi Frail. “We already have roads and we can put buses on them now.” 

Member Kevin Keane agreed. “The shuttle idea looks like a solution looking for a problem, but the bike and pedestrian trail is a really great idea,” he said.

The idea of an electric shuttle goes back a decade, when the Select Board was searching for a way to get commuters to the business center on Kendrick Street. The proposed route does not reach the business center, nor does it reach either the Newton Highlands station on the MBTA’s Green Line or the Needham Heights commuter rail station. The MBTA wants to retain the right of way from Webster Street to the Heights. 

The path currently traverses a raised bed on most of the right of way. It can accommodate an 18-foot-wide pedestrian/bicycle-only path, but it would have to be graded back significantly to accommodate a 34-foot-wide path that includes a shuttle.The base and foundation of the bridge over the Charles River is still suitable for cyclists and walkers, but the platform would have to be rebuilt for a vehicle.

James Goldstein, president of the Bay Colony Rail Trail Association, pointed out that including the shuttle not only more than doubles the cost of the project, but also needs to account for all costs associated with adding a lane for a motorized vehicle. “It doesn’t include widening the Upper Falls Greenway to 34 feet and it doesn’t include operating the shuttle,” he said.

Credit: Town of Needham

The study also doesn’t include costs of purchasing and operating a shuttle. It is unclear whether a backup vehicle would need to be bought for the one-lane route.

“If they continue to explore the shuttle option much further, the uncertainty will hold up the project for years to come,” said Goldstein. 

GPI also surveyed residents about how they would use the trail. A majority in both Newton and Needham identified recreation as the most likely use.

“I don’t get where the enthusiasm for the idea is coming from,” Keane said to the Observer about the shuttle option. He considers trails that are used for biking and walking to be parkland that adds to the livability of a community, citing Natick’s rail trail that parallels Speen Street as an example of a successful project. 

“As a local amenity for the Heights it would be amazing,” Keane said. 

The next step in the process is for GPI to solicit feedback from Newton officials.

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