The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, seen here departing Weirs Beach, could become collateral damage if the rails are removed to make way for the WOW Trail. (File photo)
Should railroad tracks be removed to make way for WOW Trail?
By RICK GREEN, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The city would help fund a study of whether it makes economic sense to remove the tracks from a section of the Concord-Lincoln Railroad Corridor to make way for an extended WOW Trail, under a proposal aired this week by City Councilor Henry Lipman.
Lipman said he will introduce a resolution at the Nov. 13 council meeting that would authorize the city to pay up to $10,000 for such a study, which would also be funded by proponents of the bicycling and walking trail. Other municipalities could also help pay for it.
He said the money is in an existing city account for the WOW Trail and doesn’t represent new spending. He also said any final decision on his resolution would likely come at a later meeting.
“A study could allow us to have a more intelligent conversation about the railroad corridor,” Lipman said. “Clearly, there are some competing interests. Getting more information could help us work through the issue.”
The Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee Trail stretches from the Belmont town line to the Lakeport area of Laconia, a distance of 2.5 miles. Proponents would like to extend it another 4 miles to Weirs Beach, and then another 5 miles into Meredith.
The tracks go on causeways and through tunnels, areas where it would be difficult and expensive to build trail if the railway remains.
Some homeowners living near a section of the railway that runs along Paugus Bay object to the proposed extension, citing concerns over privacy and crime. They also fear a fence necessary to separate the trail from the rails would disrupt views and impede water access.
Presumably such a fence would not be needed if the railway were removed.
Bruce D. Miller, president of the South Down Shores Recreation Association, said removal of the tracks could eliminate the fence issue but would not end his group's opposition.
“There is still a concern about propagating crime from the center of town,” he said. “There are still concerns about whether you are creating a public community when originally it was a private community.”
The study would determine, among other things, how much it would cost to complete the trail, with or without the tracks, and the economic implications for the region.
The Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad runs the Hobo Railroad in the White Mountains and the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad in Laconia and Meredith.
The company offers summer sightseeing trips, fall foliage excursions and a “Santa Express.”
According to the state Department of Transportation, 10 percent of the railroad company's gross ticket sales revenue goes to the department in the form of a user fee. Last year, this totaled $97,513.
Twenty percent of the money from every railroad operating agreement is sent to cities and towns through which active state-owned railroad lines are used. The payment to Laconia last year was $3,131.
Lipman's request for a study comes as proponents of extending the trail have been discussing the best ultimate use for the railroad corridor.
Rusty McLear, founder of The Inn at Mill Falls in Meredith, said in a recent letter to the editor that it's not a question of whether the WOW Trail should be extended.
“The question I believe we need to be asking is HOW it should be built,” he stated. “What is the economic impact of the land as it’s currently used? What would be the economic, health and alternative transportation benefits of a regional bicycle trail in the Lakes Region? Preserving public access to our public lands and waterways is essential, and transforming this state owned land into a year-round public recreation space would do just that. It’s about time that we get this WOW Trail project completed. Let’s study how best we can do this and go from there.”
Allan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail organization, said any formal plans his group will make to extend the trail will wait until the completion of the study.
“I think we're really wanting to understand how the city wants to proceed,” he said. “There's no sense in spending $250,000 for a detailed design for building along the tracks if there is interest in other options.”
Any formal plan for extending the trail would need to pass muster with the city and the state. It would also be subject to potential litigation. Homeowners associations opposed to the trail extension filed a lawsuit against the state over the proposal, and then withdrew the suit as premature.
Beetle said it costs about $1 million per mile to extend the trail if it has to run alongside the tracks. Other trails that have been built in corridors without tracks have been completed for $50,000 a mile, he said.
Ben Clark, president of the Lincoln and Plymouth Railroad, said his company has worked cooperatively with the WOW Trail organization.
He said the railroad has a rich history.
“The railroad has been part of the fabric of the community since the mid-1800s,” Clark said. “There isn't a resource in the Lakes Region with any more lineage than the corridor itself.
“It has been actively contributing to the economic well-being of the state of New Hampshire for over 150 years. It has been a significant economic driver and I would like to think it will continue to be in the future.”