Officials in Needham and Newton are collaborating on a feasibility study to examine possible uses for a former railroad corridor that historically had connected the two communities.
Dubbed the “Community Way,” a new trail could add 4,000 feet to the already established Upper Falls Greenway in Newton. The extension would run from Oak Street in Newton to Webster Street in Needham. Currently, the Greenway roughly parallels Needham Street from Oak Street to behind National Lumber at 15 Needham St.
The study may revitalize an effort that had been underway more than 10 years ago. That plan was effectively rendered moot when the bridges that formed the link between Needham and Newton over the Charles River and Route 128/95 were taken down to accommodate the Add-a-Lane project that widened the highway and created the Kendrick off-ramp.
The effort is being funded by a grant of $199,200 from the federal American Rescue Plan of 2021 (ARPA). The engineering firm GPI is conducting the study that is expected to be completed by July.
Public hearings for each community were held in late April. On April 18, some 70 people attended a public meeting in Needham’s Powers Hall led by GPI project manager Carolyn Radisch and Needham Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley. Another 50 people participated via Zoom.
Radisch also held a Zoom-only meeting on April 26 that included Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and two city councilors, Andreae Downs and Deborah Crossley.
The most challenging and expensive elements of the restored link would be the bridges. The current bridge over the Charles would need an additional abutment to accommodate a public-transit option. Crossing Route 128/I-95 would require an entirely new bridge with center supports.
Two possible options were discussed at the meetings. The first is a trail that would accommodate walkers and cyclists. A more complex undertaking would include a public transit feature.
The biggest point of controversy at the public meetings was the possibility of including a public transit option —some type of electric-powered vehicle to shuttle commuters. Participants in the Newton meeting unanimously opposed this idea. A majority of commenters in Needham were also against it.
“At this point, many people at the meeting thought of this as a traditional recreational path,” Select Board Chair Cooley said after the Needham meeting.
Needham Heights residents expressed concerns about the proposed path at both meetings. At the Newton meeting, an abutter asked whether privacy screens would be added. Newton City Councilor Andreae Downs replied that no abutters on the path through Newton have requested privacy screens. In fact, many have built their own paths onto the Greenway.
Also at the Newton meeting, Needham Planning Board member Jeanne McKnight questioned the likelihood of the pathway ever being used to establish a rail link from Needham to the Green Line. Newton transportation director Josh Oshroff replied that he couldn’t envision the harried MBTA taking on this project in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, he estimated that it would take roughly a decade to bring the Community Way to fruition.
Needham Park and Recreation Director Stacey Mulroy envisions a day in the distant future when the Community Way and the Needham Rail Trail will be linked. In the shorter run, she said, the Community Way “will serve a lot of people, especially those not driving cars.”
Mulroy sees the project as a way not only to connect Newton with Needham, but also to reach isolated Needham neighborhoods east of the highway.
This is only a first step in a long process, but Cooley said it is a valuable one.
“We’re learning where the MBTA right-of-way is and we’re learning about the bridges. That is key information that we need to get out of this study.”