By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — The town’s rail trail project is starting to pick up steam.
Selectmen voted unanimously Monday to allow the work to begin and to accept a $25,000 donation for the project from the Friends of Salem Bike-Ped Corridor. They agreed to sign a contract with a Nevada-based organization that will help turn the old railroad bed into a beautiful trail for walkers and cyclists.
The project is spearheaded by local resident David Topham and other members of the Friends group, including Linda Harvey. Topham, who outlined the project for selectmen before their vote, said he was pleased to receive approval, but not surprised.
The town, including community development director William Scott, has been working with the group since 2006. No taxpayer money will be used for the project, Topham said. “I felt like we had a leg up,” he said yesterday. “I felt pretty good going into it.”
Before accepting the donation, Selectman Stephen Campbell said he wanted to make sure the money would only be spent on the rail trail.
Approximately 20 supporters of the project packed the Knightly Meeting Room at Town Hall, Topham said.
Residents have backed the project since it was first proposed in the 1990s. Receiving approval from selectmen means there is only one more hurdle to overcome before work can begin, Topham said.
He said his group learned only a couple of weeks ago from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that a stormwater runoff permit was still needed. A local engineering firm is seeking the permit, with hope the Iron Horse Preservation Society can begin work later this month, Topham said. “Iron Horse is ready to start in Salem this week,” he said.
Joseph Hattrup, the organization’s chief operating officer, also appeared before selectmen Monday night.
Members of the railroad preservation group travel around the country and pull up old track for free. They fund the work by selling the track and equipment to help restore historic railroads.
Iron Horse will be doing about $405,000 worth of work and selling about $200,000 worth of track, Topham said.
“That’s a pretty good return on your investment,” he said.
The crew would begin work on a 2.6-mile section of railway. The entire rail line through Salem is 5.1 miles long.
In August, the state’s Executive Council granted approval of a “salvage agreement” between the town and New Hampshire Department of Transportation so the 19th century track could be removed.
Receiving the necessary approvals for the project has seemed like an endless process for its supporters. It involved many meetings with state officials, including DOT and the attorney general’s office.
Topham and Harvey have said there is a crew of volunteers eager to help out. The $25,000 includes contributions from the Granite State Wheelmen bicycling club, Rockingham Christian Church, the Salem Kiwanis Club, Eastern Mountain Sports and three anonymous donors, Topham said.
He said his group will be reaching out local residents and businesses to explain the project and the need for financial support. Topham said they still do not know how much money will be needed to complete the work.
When the entire project is complete, the rail trail will extend more than 120 miles from Lawrence to Lebanon. Iron Horse removed the old tracks in Methuen this spring, but was forced to halt its work once it reached the state border. The trail also passes through Windham, Derry and Londonderry.