LACONIA — The city has signed a contract to commission an economic analysis of rail-to-trail and rail-with-trail project alternatives along the Weirs Beach to Franklin railroad corridor.
In August, the City Council voted unanimously to commission a study to examine the benefits and drawbacks of extending the Winnisquam, Opechee, Winnipesaukee (WOW) Trail next to the railroad tracks along Paugus Bay, or in place of those tracks.
City purchasing specialist Jonathan Gardner confirmed a contract was signed with Alta Planning & Design of Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 18 at a cost not to exceed $39,465. The study is to be completed by April 30.
Removing the tracks would make the trail easier and cheaper to build but is opposed by rail enthusiasts and by a freight train company and a tourist train operator that use the corridor.
Also, it would require passage of a new state law. Existing statutes dictate that rail takes precedence in such corridors. Alta’s scope of work includes developing an online survey to reach a broad base of residents and potential trail and scenic railroad customers in the region. The company will distribute the survey through targeted advertisements on Facebook and or Instagram.
The process will also include interviews with stakeholders as Alta believes many of the costs and benefits associated with rail-to-trail or rail-with-trail can be quantified, and identification of gaps in available data can be best filled through interviews of the parties directly affected.
“The draft report will leverage the study findings to make the case to policymakers and stake-holders of the economic and transportation benefits of either the rail-to-trail or rail-with-trail alternative,” reads the work order submitted for the project by Alta.
Meanwhile residents of the South Down Shores/Long Bay communities on Paugus Bay have engaged Brian Gottlob of Polecon Research to conduct a study on economic and cost/benefit impacts of the existing and proposed expansion of the WOW Trail.
The homeowners’ association’s position remains the same that the city should consider alternate routes for the trail, which now stretches 2.5 miles from the Belmont town line to the Lakeport area of Laconia. Proponents of the walking and bicycling trail support extending it another four miles to Weirs Beach, and then another 5 miles into neighboring Meredith.
The N.H. DOT has already warned the city that it’s not interested in the results of a study that compares the economic impact of the WOW Trail versus the existing railroad and that railways take precedence over recreational trails as a matter of law.
Bruce Miller, president of the South Down Shores Association and Dick Bordwell, president of the Long Bay Association, have both said homeowners in their gated community continue to support the concept of a recreational trail through Laconia connecting the lakes. But they believe the proposed location is too expensive, environmentally hazardous and economically disruptive and have urged the city to consider another route.