By RICK GREEN, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The state has derailed the idea of removing the tracks from a section of its Concord-Lincoln train corridor to make way for an extended WOW Trail.
Rail service takes priority over recreational trail use in such corridors, Patrick Herlihy, of the state Transportation Department, said in a letter Tuesday to Mayor Ed Engler.
City Councilor Henry Lipman had planned to introduce a resolution at next Monday's council meeting in support of a study looking into the economics of pulling up the tracks to expand the Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee Trail.
Based on Herlihy's letter and concerns by rail enthusiasts and the scenic railroad company that uses the track, Lipman is reconsidering his next move.
“The current draft of the resolution needs to be recalibrated,” he said Thursday. “The communication that we received in the way of that letter and from others means we probably need to take a step back before we proceed with some sort of study.”
Herlihy, state director of aeronautics, rail and transit, said his department is supportive of a study looking at the benefits of trails and the railroad.
“However, if the economic analysis is to demonstrate that the WOW Trail has more of an economic benefit than the railroad and therefore the railroad should be removed from the corridor, then the department cannot offer our support, as existing and future rail service must take priority over recreational trail use in any state-owned railroad corridor,” he said in the letter.
Lipman's resolution called for a study looking at the pros and cons of building the trail “next to the existing railroad tracks or in place of the railroad tracks.” But he said Thursday his hope has always been to get new information to inform the discussion, and wasn't an endorsement of a particular approach.
His resolution would have authorized 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. This would not be new money.
The city allocates $10,000 to the trail each year, in part to pay for insurance, so the resolution was a way of saying this money could also be spent on the study.
Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad's lease with the state to run trains in the Concord-Lincoln corridor extends to the end of 2021 and includes a 10-year renewal option.
The trail currently 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, which are used by seasonal tourist trains, go on causeways and through tunnels, areas where it would be difficult and much more expensive to build a trail if the railway remains.
Benjamin Clark, vice president of the scenic railroad, said it's not necessary to pick either a railroad or a trail, when the two can co-exist.
“After learning of this initiative, I immediately began to question why the City of Laconia would consider using taxpayer dollars to embark upon a study to destroy a culturally significant rail line, eliminate a landmark tourist attraction and in the process, put 50 or more people out of work?,” he said. “The situation made me ponder: Why would anyone want to choose one use over another, when you could actually have both?”
The railroad has worked cooperatively with trail supporters in the past. An existing stretch of the trail in Laconia is in the railroad corridor.
“From our perspective, destruction of the rail system is a non-starter,” Clark said.
Various rail advocates have also voiced opposition to the idea of removing the tracks. Also, people living in gated communities along the proposed path of the trail extension object to putting the path in their area. They say it would be disruptive, they would lose privacy and be subject to trespass and other crimes.
Proponents of the trail say it would be excellent for tourism and a boon for business. They say it would give people a chance to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and would connect disparate communities.