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Neponset River trail bridges Mattapan and Milton

Neponset River trail bridges Mattapan and Milton

A compromise route for extending the Neponset River trail splits its one-mile length between Mattapan and Milton, winning support from residents of both communities who live along the river’s banks.

The near-final plan for the extension from Central Avenue in Milton to Mattapan Square expands Mattapan residents’ access to the riverside trail. Entrances are slated to be at Ryan Park on River Street, the foot of Freemont Street and the square.

A visitors’ center and outdoor plaza are planned at a former furniture store on Blue Hill Avenue at River Street, vacant property the state took by eminent domain last year and acquired for $400,000. In Ryan Park, a canoe launch will be upgraded and an existing dirt trail there is likely to be paved, widened and beautified.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation unveiled its latest plan for the trail extension during a public meeting last week at the Foley Senior Residences on River Street. Comments from members of the audience of about 150 were generally approving, with some making suggestions for minor modifications or requesting security cameras and low-level lighting.

Mattapan residents who were present appeared impatient for the long-delayed extension to be completed and muttered in quiet voices as Milton resident after Milton resident stood to propose changes or express safety concerns.

“The Mattapan community has been left out of the entire Neponset Greenway project up to now,” said Vivien Morris, chairperson of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. “We’ve been encouraging Mattapan residents to be more physically active and to be closer to nature.”

Morris urged that the extension be “expedited as much as possible.” Deneen Crosby, the lead consultant on the project, estimated that it could be completed by the end of 2013.

That timetable, however, depends on the department winning a competitive grant from the federal Department of Transportation. The application deadline is Oct. 30, with a decision due in the spring.

As changes have been made to the proposed route in the last year to win acceptance on both sides of the river, the projected cost has risen from $3 million to $4 million to the current $7 million to $9 million.

A major contributor to the increase was the attractive but expensive solution the Department of Conservation and Recreation had to devise because the MBTA refused to allow the trail to cross the trolley tracks at ground level. A long bridge over the tracks in Mattapan Station will cost “a couple million,” Crosby said, but will provide views of treetops along the river.

“It’s expensive. It’s another river bridge. We’re building a nice structure,” Crosby said in a brief interview after the meeting.

She said surveillance cameras, “wireless police boxes” and low-level lighting to improve nighttime visibility could be placed on what the department has dubbed a “canopy walk.”

Putting River Street access at the wooded foot of Fremont Street, instead of a block away on Riverbank Place, a private way, may have also contributed to the cost increase.

In Mattapan Square, two sheds at the furniture store site will be demolished and the remaining historic building will be used as a vistors’ center, Crosby said. The department may staff the center.

The proposed route is the sixth alternative the department has offered. Last year, it started with three and expanded that to five.

A significant obstacle was the vociferous opposition of some residents on Milton’s Capen Street who objected to the extension passing by or connecting to where they live near the river bank. In public comments made to the department, they expressed fears the trail would amount to a corridor for crime from Mattapan, despite the relatively stable, middle-class neighborhood adjoining that side of the river.

In her presentation, Crosby noted that the route runs “several hundred feet from the residences” around Capen Street, where the trolley stop closest to the square is situated.

But some Capen Street residents who did not share their neighbors’ fears complained they would have to walk to either end of the planned extension to have access. They asked for an entry point at the Valley Road trolley stop.

Crosby said the embankment is too steep there to create a handicapped-accessible entrance and doing so “could jeopardize funding.”

With the route finally settled, state Rep. Linda Dorcena-Forry, who represents Mattapan, hoped sharing the trail extension once it opens will bring communities together.

“It’s important we connect our communities — Dorchester, Mattapan and Milton,” she said.