The Board of Health on Monday could not reach the threshold required to take a position on the proposed extension of the Minuteman Bikeway.
The board will have another chance at its next meeting, albeit only five days before the issue is addressed at a Special Town Meeting on Nov. 14.
Since the board has five elected members, a majority of three is the minimum required for approval of any motion. But only three members attended Monday’s meeting and it was clear shortly after the discussion began that there would not be unanimity.
Bedford voters on Nov. 14 will decide whether to authorize the Select Board to acquire easements that would clear the way for construction of a paved extension along the route of what is known as the Reformatory Branch Trail.
The proposal requires a two-thirds minimum because it includes acquisition by eminent domain. The identical article fell short of the threshold at the Annual Town Meeting on March 28, essentially derailing the long-planned project.
Board of Health member Maureen Richichi Monday offered strong advocacy for restoration of the bikeway project, pointing out that it is consistent with health and wellness, among many of the goals outlined in the board’s mission statement.
Richichi cited promoting physical activity, expanding opportunities for vulnerable populations, and improving safety through infrastructure improvements on Railroad Avenue and under Concord Road. She cited state and federal studies about the benefits of shared paths, as well as local commitments to increase safe cycling and walking to school.
The paved extension will encourage intergenerational activity and extend the availability into the winter months, Richichi added. She said she had drafted a statement that the board could adopt to detail the reasons for its support.
Fellow member Ann Kiessling said she endorses all of the goals in the mission statement and is “appalled” by the town’s lack of playgrounds and picnic areas. But she stated, “I just don’t see that this extension is going to do anything for public health.”
“Wouldn’t increased access over more months of the year improve use and safety?” Richichi asked.
Kiessling replied, “I don’t see that paving that particular stretch” as having a significant impact since it doesn’t service any concentrated residential areas. “If you live in an apartment near a bike path, you don’t need a car,” she said.
Kiessling said that the current Minuteman Bikeway “is not friendly for dogs, not friendly for children, it’s a commuter path and really important in high-density places.”
Richichi said she walks the Reformatory Branch Trail “all the time – I’ve almost been hit on the dirt path.” But she has friends who can’t access the trail, and “in our mission statement, we talk about serving the vulnerable population and this is creating 1.8 miles that open to people with disabilities.” There are other shaded paths for dog walkers, she said, adding the board’s mission is to support “groups in town that don’t have access.”
“Our mission is to focus on serving all residents. The trail as it stands today does not serve all residents,” said board Chair Susan Schwartz. “If you pave, you might lose as many routine users of that path as you gain,” Kiessling replied. “Bedford has a lot of work to do for outdoor spaces that promote healthy activities.” Schwartz maintained, “We should provide more distance that is fully accessible and is safe” on the Minuteman Bikeway.
A dozen residents spoke on the project during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Most of them were familiar names and voices, going back to earlier public events and even Annual Town Meeting.
Most of the speakers tailored their comments to the extension’s impact on public health. The breakdown, as it often is, was almost evenly divided, pro and con.
For example, Leah Devereaux said her wheelchair-bound husband needs an asphalt surface to safely access the Reformatory trail and its natural surroundings. But Lori Eggert, an abutter to the project, countered that several “classes of citizens” would be disadvantaged by a paved surface, including “slow-moving, infirm, more fragile people who cannot adjust quickly to bike traffic.”
Dawn Lafrance Linden, chair of the Transportation Advisory Committee, said, “If we make this path so that everyone can use it, then we can get these benefits to more of our citizens.”
Resident Jim Weisman labeled the current Reformatory Branch as “the great equalizer because “cyclists must slow down to protect their precious cycles, thereby creating a safer environment.”
Matthew Black said his children learned safely to ride bicycles on the Minuteman Bikeway. “The planned 12-foot paved lanes with three-foot stone-dust paths on each side will be an important difference from the current bikeway and will increase access to the joy and benefits of this amazing trail.”
Bob Keane said pedestrians “cannot stroll the bikeway safely and it’s a dangerous place for kids to learn to ride” because cyclists ride by at high speeds. “The Reformatory Branch Trail accommodates a fair amount of cyclists at slower speeds. Paving will take away the recreational options available to us.”
John McClain reported that recently he took part in some counts for the state Department of Transportation. “The thing I noticed is that there actually are more walkers on the Minuteman Bikeway than on the Reformatory Branch Trail, and a higher proportion of cyclists on the trail,” he said. McClain added, “I have a number of friends who cannot use the trail in its current state.”
Abutter David Radlo said he “received a concussion on the paved trail about five years ago, and his doctor “suggested I stay on the unpaved path, my primary source of exercise. I’ve seen cross country runners, older people pushing kids, walking dogs – it’s a wonderful terrain.”