By Alex Lippa
---- — For David Topham, it’s putting together the pieces of a 115-mile puzzle.
“It’s all laid out, we just need to bridge the gaps,” he said.
He is referring to what is being called the Granite State Rail Trail, a comprehensive hiking and biking trail that will run from the Methuen-Salem line to Lebanon, N.H.
Between Salem and Manchester, the route runs along the former railroad line linking Lawrence and Manchester.
The trail through Windham, Derry and Londonderry as well as Salem. Each town has an independent organization coordinating efforts to lay out the trail.
Topham, co-chairman of The Friends of the Salem Bike-Ped Corridor, has taken charge of getting the Salem portion of the project completed. Topham is currently looking for funding for a 2.8-mile portion of the track between Hampshire Road and Cluff Crossing.
“The community support has been tremendous,” he said.
The Friends needed to come up with a $170,000 by tomorrow to receive a federal grant from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. So far they have received $140,000 in private donations with more money pledged.
While the Friends have been raising money, the Iron Horse Preservation Society, based in Nevada, has been busy removing the rails in Salem since last November. The society is a non-profit organization which converts abandoned railroad lines to recreational trails. The group funds it work selling the tracks to restore historic railroads lines.
“We want to preserve corridors for all types of future use,” said Joe Hattrup, COO for Iron Horse. “If you just let nature take its course, it deteriorates and becomes completely unusable.”
Hattrup and his crew expect the work to be completed in Salem by early July. Once the work is completed, a waiting game begins for the Salem portion. The town will need to vote to use town money at Town Meeting in March to pave the trail. The town would be reimbursed by the state after the work is done.
The 2.8-mile stretch is the first priority for Salem, but the town has another 2.3 miles of trail it would like to develop. One of the major hurdles will be creating a bridge to cross over nine lanes of traffic on Rockingham Park Boulevard.
“That’s very far away in our plans,” Topham said. “Once we come up with $2 million we can start focusing on that.”
After Iron Horse is finished in Salem, it will head to Londonderry. At town meeting in March, voters elected to spend $227,000 to pave just over one mile of trail in town between Sanborn Road and Symmes Drive.
“This is a major milestone,” said Bob Rimol, a member of the board of directors of Londonderry Trailways. “The hardest thing is to get the first mile done.”
Hattrup said he expects his team to be in Londonderry for two weeks. After drainage issues are worked out, Rimol said, it’s possible that paving could begin in the fall.
“I didn’t think we would be paving this quickly,” Rimol said. “It’s very exciting times up here in Londonderry.”
While Londonderry and Salem are working diligently to get their first portions paved, Derry and Windham have been out ahead of the curve. Nearly eight miles of the trail are already paved between the two towns, making it the longest continuous abandoned rail bed trail in New Hampshire.
“We kind of set the benchmark for the trail,” said Mark Samsel, president for the Windham Rail Trail Alliance. “We want to set the standard for development of other towns.”
Samsel said only a half-mile of the 4.1 miles of the trail in Windham still need to be paved. He hopes the town can use $144,000 from a a New Hampshire Department of Transportation grant for the final segment of Windham’s trail. That section goes from Roulston Road to the Salem town line.
Close to 87 percent of the completed Windham trail was privately funded, with the rest paid for by the Windham Conservation Committee. Samsel hopes for more help from private donors.
“We know we have the (transportation enhancement) grant,” he said. “But we are always looking for donations so that we able to complete it privately.”
Since it was completed in 2006, Samsel said, the rail trail has been a tremendous success in town. The Windham Rail Trail Alliance did a study last year and found an average of 1,200 people per day used the trail during a summer weekend.
“We would never have had that kind of usage before it was paved,” he said. “We have everything from walkers and bikers to strollers, inline skates and horses using the trail.”
Those who use the trail in Windham, said the trail has been a welcome addition to the community.
“My husband and I use this five out of seven days a week,” said Michelle Lewis of Derry. “It’s awesome. It’s quieter and safer. We use it all times of day.”
Tom Vogtle of Manchester said he travels all the way down to Windham to walk his dog along the trail.
“A little closer to home would be nice,” he said.
In Derry, 3.7 miles of the 4.4 miles of trail have been paved, but the last stretch of the trail is proving to be problematic. That portion of the land is owned by developers of Woodmont Commons, who have been planning a 600-acre, multi-use development.
“The situation is kind of stalled on our end,” Derry Trail Alliance President Erich Whitney said. “But all that stuff is up in the air right now. We are working with the town to possibly find ways around that, but the trail isn’t a priority for Woodmont right now.”
Derry is unusual in that the majority of its segment of the trail is owned by the town. In the other towns, it is mostly state-owned property.
“The state bought it with the intent of preserving it for the possible return of freight railroad in the future,” said Larry Keniston, state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for New Hampshire Department of Transportation. “In the meantime, we are promoting it for use of towns for trails.”
Keniston said a major issue in helping the project move forward is the lack of state money available.
“There just isn’t the type of money available as there has been in the past,” he said. “It’s been quite a while since we did the last cycle for this project.”
Rather than have each town pursue its own segment individually, the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission has organized a Regional Trail Coordinating Council to help coordinate all available resources.
“If we get on the same page and organize things, this will get done a lot quicker,” Planning Commission President David Preece said. “Instead of everyone being scattered, we want to prioritize and find out what is important for us.”
Preece’s vision is for the trail to be an alternative transportation system for the I-93 corridor.
“I see people wanting to commute to work by using this trail,” he said. “It would also be such a boost for the economy once it is completed.”
There is no target day for completion of the entire trail, but everyone involved is working to make sure it is sooner rather than later.
“We try to help each other out, we are all in this together,” Rimol said. “We all communicate, talk and have meetings so that people can do this. Everyone is on the same page, but it’s just going to take time.”