METHUEN — A decade-long effort to bring Methuen's Rail Trail to life finally came to fruition Tuesday during a ceremonial groundbreaking, where local and state officials gathered to toss a symbolic shovelful of dirt and kick off a six-month construction project. 

The Rail Trail project has been in the works for years, but didn't become a true reality until the city secured $1.65 million in state funding — later increased to $1.95 million — to pave the 2.4-mile path that runs from Manchester Street Park to the border of Salem, New Hampshire. The funding came through the Gateway City Parks Program, a state-run organization that seeks to create outdoor recreational spaces in underserved urban areas.

Though the original funding came to the city in 2016, the project didn't go out to bid until the winter. Tuesday, Mayor James Jajuga was joined by city and state representatives, volunteers, city officials and project managers as he announced that the trail, which has existed unpaved for years, would finally be paved and fully recognized by Methuen.

"This is going to be a linchpin of our downtown development project," Jajuga said. "We are extremely excited about this."

When completed, the trail will be a multi-use path with signage that runs along the former Manchester and Lawrence branch of the Boston and Maine railroad. A parking lot and trail access will be located at the Methuen Depot on Railroad Avenue.

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, thanked the volunteers of the Methuen Rail Trail Alliance at the groundbreaking, noting that their meticulous care for the trail provided the momentum she needed to convince her fellow members of the Legislature to support the funding. She also thanked the city's Director of Economic and Community Development William Buckley for tying the project to the city's downtown revitalization plan.

"When (Buckley) saw that tie-in with the downtown and that economic development project, that's when this really took off," she said.

Daniel Sieger, assistant secretary for environment under the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, agreed that the trail is key to bringing new homes and businesses downtown.

"We see projects like this not only for their recreational value ... but it's really a linchpin for economic development in cities like this across the Commonwealth," Sieger said. 

Methuen was aided by Groundwork Lawrence, which has overseen similar projects in that city. Project Director Brad Buschur said the "connectivity" of the new trail — which will now connect Lawrence to Salem, Windham and Concord, New Hampshire, and beyond — "is what makes this an amazing project."

"Now you have a paved trail that takes you from the city to the suburbs to the countryside," he said, noting it will allow urban kids to "expand (their) horizons."

Buckley said it was "really rewarding to be out here and see actual construction taking place." He said construction began in March and is scheduled to wrap up in early fall — September or October.

Brown, Richardson & Rowe, Inc. has been hired as the landscape architect. Stantec designed the project. Kodiak Corporation will be completing the paving and construction. 

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