After long delay, city set to begin canal trail

For students on their way up to Science Hill, walking over an empty dirt ditch is an accepted part of the journey. But now the city of New Haven has begun turning that ditch — actually the old Farmington Canal — into a bicycle and jogging trail that will eventually offer students a recreational outlet as well as a more scenic view.

The Farmington Canal project is an ambitious plan to replace the old canal and rail line with a multi-use greenway for recreation and transportation. The canal, which originally opened in 1828, extended from New Haven to Northampton, Mass. It passes through the Yale campus on a diagonal, running under the intersection of Trumbull and Prospect streets and then under Hillhouse Avenue, next to Leet Oliver Memorial Hall and University Health Services. It was later turned into a rail line, used by freight trains into the 1970s.

While the proposal for the trail has been on the table for years, funding and other related difficulties are only now being resolved.

New Haven City Plan Department official David Barone said he expects the city will build a quarter-mile section of the trail this summer between Munson and Sachem streets — to the northwest of the Yale campus — at a cost of $550,000.

“In a month we will award a bid, and then a few weeks after that, construction will begin,” Barone said.

Though the city obtained most of the land for the project eight years ago, progress has been slow. The design of the trail poses one difficulty: If completed all the way to New Haven Harbor at Long Wharf, it will have to run through some of the most congested parts of the city, including areas where the old canal does not currently exist.

It has also taken time to build consensus among local citizens, some of whom felt that it might lead to increased crime or draw too many people, said Michael Piscitelli, the assistant director of planning for the city of New Haven. And the trail proposal avoided another potential pitfall when Yale agreed in 1998 to preserve the canal line beneath the new Cesar Pelli-designed engineering building planned for the corner of Prospect and Trumbull streets.

But the principal problem has always been the lack of funding. The city of New Haven now has grants for the project from the state Department of Environmental Protection and a shared T21 Federal Highway Grant with the town of Hamden. They also have a capital bond, which will appear on the records for the next fiscal year.

Barone estimated that converting all of New Haven’s section of the canal to a greenway would cost $5 million. If connecting sections downtown and from State Street to Long Wharf are added in, the total cost would be even higher.

Not everyone is convinced the project will go forward. Chris Ozyck, the president of the Elm City Parks Conservancy, cited the failure of the city to find a contractor last fall as one reason for doubting it this year.

“Delay after delay leads to skepticism,” Ozyck said. “We’re at the point when we will believe it when we can see it and touch it.”

But Michael Piscitelli, the City Plan Department’s director of comprehensive planning, said the city is committed to building the trail all the way through New Haven.

The Farmington Canal Association, which has pushed for the construction of a trail for years, is a member of the Tracks-to-Trails Conservancy, a national organization that supports the building of trails on abandoned rail lines. They have already built 11,000 miles of rail trail and have another 20,000 miles planned.

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