‘Less bridge, more rail trail’: Marblehead rethinks use of $1.4M COVID-19 funds

After hearing from several disappointed residents, town officials adjusted their plans to use $1.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to reconstruct two aging bridges along the Marblehead Rail Trail.

A section of the Marblehead Rail Trail at Lead Mills to undergo improvements as part of a phased expansion plan funded by redirected federal COVID-19 relief money. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

After hearing from residents that they viewed maintenance of the well-traversed trail itself a higher priority, the town adopted a “new approach,” Town Planner Becky Cutting and Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer reported to the Select Board Sept. 13.

“What we’re trying to do is make less bridge, more trail,” Kezer said.

The funds will now be used to construct smaller bridges to improve pedestrian access, coupled with broader trail resurfacing projects.

Originally, the town intended to use the American Rescue Plan Act funds to fully reconstruct two early 20th-century bridges near Lafayette Street. These bridges are part of a former railroad corridor that has been converted into the Marblehead Rail Trail, a public recreation path.

However, Cutting indicated that further discussions with utilities and public safety officials led to a change in priorities.

“It was determined that they really don’t need vehicular access there because there are other ways to get there,” she said.

Given that the aging bridges do not need to support heavy vehicle use, less extensive structural work will be required to keep them functional for pedestrians.

This new approach will allow the town to redirect the ARPA funds toward other objectives designed to benefit the community at large.

“This will allow the funds to go further to extend the trail improvements in accordance with the [Rail Trail] Master Plan,” Cutting told Select Board members.

The revised plans expand the scope of the project to make the bridges more accessible. Modifications will include the removal of raised lips and curbs that currently impede the movement of wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

Cutting described the Marblehead Rail Trail as “a really complicated site” with environmental constraints. The flexibility offered by ARPA funds makes them more suitable than state grants to address a project on such a site, which will entail a complex permitting process.

Select Board member Alexa Singer expressed appreciation for the new approach.

“It was helpful to see the nuance in navigating various funding sources based on project specifics,” she said.

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