LACONIA — The City Council on Monday will consider commissioning a study of the pros and cons of extending the WOW Trail next to the railroad tracks along Paugus Bay or in place of those tracks.
The Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee 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 the public pedestrian and bicycling trail another 4 miles to Weirs Beach, and eventually another 5 miles into Meredith, saying such an extension would be excellent for tourism and a boon for business. They say it would give people an improved opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and would connect disparate communities.
The WOW Trail Committee, which supports the extension, would pay for the study. The city would ask the state Transportation Department for permission to use the Concord-Lincoln train corridor so that a contractor could do the research.
Councilor Henry Lipman proposed such a study last October but then withdrew the proposal in November, saying the idea would need to be “recalibrated.”
The new resolution for the study is more detailed, specifies that the WOW Trail Committee would pay for the research and likely has a greater chance of winning council support.
Numerous issues remain in the way of a trail extension.
People living in gated communities along Paugus Bay say a trail extension would cause them to lose privacy and be subject to trespass and other crimes.
Rail enthusiasts and a tourist train company that uses the corridor object to the idea of pulling up the tracks.
Patrick Herlihy, of the state Transportation Department, which owns the corridor, said in a letter to Laconia Mayor Ed Engler last year that rail service takes priority over recreational trail use in such corridors.
Plymouth & Lincoln Railroad's lease with the state to run trains in the Concord-Lincoln corridor extends to the end of 2021.
Herlihy said in the letter that the department was supportive of a study looking at the benefits of trails and the railroad, but wasn’t interested in an analysis “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.”
Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the position reflected in that letter has not changed. He said the department would allow access to the corridor for the study.
The tracks go on causeways and through narrow areas where it would be difficult and much more expensive to build a trail if the railway remains.
Among other things, the study would determine the expense of extending the trail alongside the tracks, versus in place of the tracks. It would also look at the economic impact to the region and the state of the current trail, versus an extended trail.
State law says, “No railroad right-of-way in this state shall be used for any purpose that would unreasonably limit the ability to restore rail service over the right-of-way at minimum cost if such service were to be required in the future.”