Holliston Rail Trail A Decades-Long Journey

J.D. O’Gara
Official Opening July 4th
Issue Date: 
July, 2018
Article Body: 

It’s been a long time coming, but vision of the Holliston Rail Trail has finally come to fruition.
“Originally, it dated back before I even moved to town – it was on a 1986 Open Space and Recreation Plan,” says Robert Weidknecht, Chair of the Holliston Trails Committee appointed by the Holliston Board of Selectmen and one of seven members of the committee. Weidknecht says that the goal on that Conservation Commission plan in 1986 was to create a bike trail to go from Cross Street to the Milford line on the south side of town. “The Selectmen appointed the committee (with a vote) on January 25, 1999, and before then, there was an ad hoc committee.”
At the time, says Weidknecht, John Thomas, on the Conservation Commission, who worked for Beals and Thomas, suggested doing something bigger, connecting this to the Milford trail.
“There are three railroads, one from Framingham to Milford, the other ran from Milford up into Hopkinton and the third from Ashland back to Framingham. The idea John had was to connect all these,” says Weidknecht.
Meetings, he says, took place with Selectmen from each of these towns and with the Upper Charles Land Trust Conservation, Inc., says Weidknecht, and then the Metropolitan Planning Council put together a feasibility study that ended in about June of 1997.
“Then, from that point, Holliston then said, why don’t we look at getting the land, which was at the time owned by Conrail,” says Weidknecht. Conrail, he says, was willing to give the town a 2-mile section of the rail bed if the town got it appraised, and all went forward until CSX purchased Conrail and didn’t want to sell the land immediately for the first three years.
“So it dragged out. We were trying to lease it for a number of years, and it took 13 years to finally buy the land,” says Weidknecht. By that time, the town didn’t have enough money to buy the entire property, so it bought a piece, in 2012. We were able to construct trail surface improvements through the Recreational Trails Program.
“As we would buy a piece, we would immediately build a section of the trail,” says Weidknecht.
The seven-member committee has evolved over the years, says Weidknecht. “At one time, we had Herb Brockert, a site constructor contractor, Matt Varrell, a wetland scientist, and I’m a landscape architect – between us we were able to coordinate the acquisition of the rail bed, seek the funding, the wetland scientist and myself doing the permitting, and then Herb would coordinate construction with loads of gravel and loads of stone dust, and he actually coordinated all of the construction.”
The trail also took a lot of outside volunteer help.
“We had thousands of people, cutting brush, removing railroad ties, installing posts – over a dozen Scouts doing projects along the trail and landscaping. Thousands of people and thousands of volunteer hours.”
The last section of the trail was the 8-Arch Bridge, a project that had its own committee.
“There were actually two 8-Arch Bridge committees,” says Jay Robinson, the town 8-Arch Bridge Committee Chair. “First was a not for profit group founded by Mary Greendale, and that’s a branch of the Friends of the Rail Trail that Ed Daniels is the president of, and that was formed three or four years ago. They did the initial discovery work and took it to a point where they got a report from an organization and prompted the Selectmen to form a town committee in January of 2017.
“We were formed, and we took the report that Mary Greendale and her folks generated with Gill Engineering to do some analysis, I’d say like a straw man of what could be done with bridge and what the general direction would be,” says Robinson. The group, he says, consisting of very knowledgeable volunteers including four engineers, took the vision statement and worked with Gill Engineering.
“We went back and forth with Gill on what do we think the design should be and the concept, making sure the end product looked like the artist rendering generated by Mary Greendale’s group,” says Robinson. Gill, he says, then put together the specifications which would serve as a foundation for the RFP and provided an estimate of the cost. In May of 2017, the committee put an article in the Town Warrant to ask for funding for the project.
“We asked originally for $590,000,” says Robinson. However, when the RFP went out, seven bids came back, from $644,000 to over $1.1 million. “NEL Corporation was the lowest qualified bidder. We were short money to execute a contract, so at Town Meeting in October 2017 the town stepped up and supported the project with extra $200,000.
“It being a non-standard project put constraints on how it had to be done. Basically, it had to be done like a Lego set,” says Robinson.
Still, says Weidknecht, for the 6.7 miles of trail in Holliston, with a cost of about $2.2 million for the land, “we were able to do construction for a phenomenally low cost.” Over six miles of the trail were constructed for just $260,000, funding that did not come from the town.
“We were able to work with state legislators and we were able to get grants. Most of the construction costs were stone dust and gravel, and we were able to use reclaimed asphalt,” says Weidknecht.
Town support for the project also exceeded expectations.
“For just the bridge piece alone, we needed the collaboration between the Historical Commission – the Historical Society provided input, the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) funded the project, so we needed their support, the Finance Committee, and the Conservation Committee (the bridge sits above a wetland). During the project execution, we got to the point where we had to get help from the Police Department, because some of the folks that abut the trail were having challenges. So, we had good funding, good financial support and a lot of support from a community that needed to provide input,” says Robinson. That support, coupled with experienced committee members who could capably work with the people hired to do the project, made it a success.
“It was my first rodeo, my first community project in town,” says Robinson, “and it was very rewarding seeing people use it, and I’ve only gotten a percentage of the taste Robert has. They really put together a crown jewel, and he gets to see people using the result of his hard work. I only got a taste.”
I think it’s a tremendous asset to the town, grew up in town, says Ed Daniels, President of the Friends of the Holliston Trails. “I sell homes in town, so I know this asset for the town is good for the community and good for people living in it. It just makes living here so much better.”