By LISA CAPOBIANCO
A team of consultants and public partners are about to embark on planning a route for the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail through Plainville.
The Capital Regional Council of Governments (CRCOG) recently signed an agreement with VHB of Wethersfield to begin planning a route for the trail. VHB’s team consists of engineers, scientists, planners and designers who partner with clients in the areas of transportation, real estate, energy, and state/local governments, according to the company’s website.
Known to be one of the most historic greenways in New England, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail runs from New Haven to Northampton, Mass. But a nine-mile gap exists between Farmington and Southington.
Plainville is the only town of 11 along the 55-mile long trail that has yet to start design or construction. VHB will review different options for connecting the trail to the soon-to-be-completed segment in Southington, which will end at Townline Road, and the soon-to-be-completed segment in Farmington, which will end at Northwest Drive. The project in Farmington will include a new bridge over Route 6.
Jim Cassidy of the Plainville Greenway Alliance said once completed, the trail project will make a huge impact on Plainville’s economy.
“There will be a lot of people…inclined to ride this trail, and when they do, they’ll…stop for coffee or ice cream. They’ll stop for something to eat,” said Cassidy, adding that cyclists will stay at various places in Connecticut. “That’s perhaps one of the biggest things that we see happening as a result of this trail being built.”
Director of Planning and Economic Development Mark DeVoe said Plainville’s economy will improve greatly upon the successful completion of a trail system that brings users through the heart of the town’s central business district.
“A successful trail that not only provides, but [also] encourages use by all age groups will enrich the quality of life for all that use it,” said DeVoe. “I can envision a renaissance in Plainville’s Central Business District as trail users move back and forth from points north and south.”
One obstacle that Plainville faces with the project is the existence of active freight rail traffic along the route. Under its planning project, VHB will examine different alternatives, such as off-road routes or on-road options. The company will measure options according to the criteria recommended by local advocates, including safety and easy access to Plainville’s attractions and services, as well as the route’s friendly atmosphere for cyclists, runners and walkers of all ages.
DeVoe said a previous attempt in 2009 tried to identify many alternate courses that the trail might take, but “did not go as far as survey and investigation into actual possibilities for property acquisition.” Much of the trail through Plainville (or perhaps the entire trail) will not be a rails to trails project, he said.
“Locating a safe and attractive amenity on a street in lieu of an abandoned rail bed is ultimately more challenging,” said DeVoe. “This effort will look at some of the routes identified in 2009, but will go much further in terms of depth analysis.”
Due to the unique challenges in Plainville, VHB has gathered a team of associated consulting firms for assistance. One of the firms, Mobycon, is based in the Netherlands, but has offices in the U.S. The firm will apply innovative methods to better integrate bicycles and pedestrians into local transportation infrastructure.
The other firm, Blue Zones, will engage the public in making choices that will enhance the livability of the community and the health of its residents, which Cassidy said are two main advantages of the trail.
Cassidy said residents who live in nearby communities, like New Britain and Bristol, will have easy access to the trail once the project is complete.
“Local residents will have an opportunity to get out and be more active,” said Cassidy.
The timeline for this project involves 18 to 24 months of planning. As the project develops, public meetings in Plainville and Southington will inform local residents on current route options, seeking input on these options and on the final route selection. VHB’s consulting team will provide information and receive feedback from interested parties while keeping the public engaged through social media, websites, print and broadcast media. By the end of the process, conceptual diagrams illustrating how the proposed trail will look is expected to be available.
Although the schedule for the public meetings is still uncertain, Cassidy said these meetings are likely to occur at various stages of the project.
“The VHB team will find ways to engage the public in various ways,” said Cassidy.
Cassidy added that the Plainville Greenway Alliance will serve as “cheerleaders” of the project, making the public aware of any scheduled meetings and opportunities to give input on the project.
“We want to get as many people involved in this project as possible,” said Cassidy.
When the preferred route through town is selected, VHB’s consulting team will plan a connection from the Heritage Trail to the beginning of the five-mile long, multi-use trail that begins at the CTfastrak station in downtown New Britain. This trail continues into Elmwood, and gives trail users an option to connect with Hartford and points further east.
“Plainville’s task and indeed challenge is to work with the consultants and the public partners we’ve identified to choose a final alignment that in some instances, will be located near very busy traffic areas,” said DeVoe.
After completion of the planning project, local officials and advocates will seek the aid of the Connecticut Department of Transportation to finalize the design and begin construction of the trail gap closure. The trail in Plainville is anticipated to be complete in three to five years, with the trail gap closures in Farmington and Southington likely to be completed within two to three years.
DeVoe said the trail’s completion will hinge on future fund availability.
“Once this process is complete, and we have chosen a final alignment, we must then seek to fund full design and…actual construction,” said DeVoe.
Comments? Email lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.