The Nashua River Rail Trail is a twelve mile, multi-use trail that runs from Ayer, Massachusetts, to Nashua, New Hampshire. It is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The NRRT management model is flawed.
Scope of Maintenance by DCR
The DCR web site states repairs were done to the NRRT in 2018. From experience, I can tell you that the repairs were not as extensive as they should have been at the time. The repairs themselves were poorly done, leaving significant bumps or uneven pavement between the old surfaces and the repairs.
The Lowell Sun had an editorial on trail maintenance on October 26, 2022. The towns that the trail cuts through, Ayer, Groton, Dunstable, and Pepperell, have all complained to the DCR about trail conditions. The go as far as calling the conditions dangerous.
In April 2023 I drove to the Ayer trail head to find the trail closed. On the Internet I found that the closure was due to planned maintenance. As a frequent user of the trail for bicycle riding, I was happy that there was maintenance happening. I was hopeful the the concerns of the towns were being heard. Later, I discovered that the scope of the maintenance was not nearly as large as I imagined or as needed.
2023 Maintenance by DCR Falls Short
Now in 2023 the DCR can claim victory once again since they completed about a dozen patches to the NRRT trail surface. It is not clear how they selected the areas to be patched. There are many areas that are in worse condition and they remain that way. Frost heaves and tree root heaves that existed last year have become worse this year. Major portions of the trail need complete resurfacing rather than just patches.
DCR can claim a safety modification to the NRRT. All of the bollards have been removed. The bollards were in the middle of the trail at each street crossing. They were there to keep motor vehicle traffic from entering the trail. The bollards had locks so that they could be removed for maintenance or emergency vehicles. Local safety official may have had a problem with that approach. I suppose the bollards were also an obstacle for bicycles. They were painted yellow, but cyclists may have run into them. Now safety vehicles can easily get to victims of the poor trail surface to rescue them.
C&O Model Similar, Similar Result
The condition of the NRRT reminds me of the condition of another trail under a similar management regime. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail from Washington DC to Pittsburgh is managed by the United States Park Service. Long sections of the trail have pot holes, protruding rocks, and tree roots that make the ride uncomfortable and dangerous. I broke my femur in September, 2021, on the C&O after hitting a tree root and falling to the ground. Mine was not the only accident on that trail: there have been hundreds.
Trail Management Models That Work
The best managed and maintained trails, in my opinion, are those with a local management model. The Great Allegheny Passage is one of those trails. The trail has always been in excellent condition and is mostly paved with packed stone dust. The surface is smooth and pleasant to ride. It is maintained by the localities that it passes through.
The trail in my town, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, uses a similar model. The trail passes through Lowell, Chelmsford, Westford, Acton, and Concord. The towns agree to maintain the trail. When sections of the trail needed resurfacing in Chelmsford, the town took care that it was done. The also took care that the job was done well. The transitions between the new surfaces and the old are seamless and smooth.
It seems the best model is the local model. When the state or federal government are responsible, the priorities do not necessarily align with the local needs. There are too many constituencies to satisfy. They also engage in capital projects to build recreational facilities such as trails, but never plan for their maintenance and the cost that goes along with maintenance. The maintenance of the NRRT needs to be turned over to the towns.