Bikeways Committees Wrestle With Rail Trail Branding

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Roads, highways and transportation

Bikeways officials say better signs and maps – and maybe a new name – could help visitors navigate the Old Colony Rail Trail. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM The name “Old Colony Rail Trail” is a nice tribute to the railroad that once serviced Harwich and Chatham, but it doesn’t communicate some key information: where the trail goes.

“I see bikers between Thompson’s Field and [Route] 137 looking at maps and trying to figure out where they are,” Harwich bikeways committee member Shanna Nealy said. Nealy and her group met last week in a rare joint session with the Chatham bikeways committee. “I’ve had some people ask me, how far is it to Orleans from where they are, thinking they’re almost there.”

In fact, to reach Orleans and points north from Chatham’s stretch of the rail trail, users have to travel all the way back to Harwich Center and then leave the Old Colony Rail Trail and rejoin the Cape’s main bicycle artery, the Cape Cod Rail Trail, for a trip through Brewster to Orleans.

The committee is pondering a new name for the trail, new signs and a new map that shows both towns’ portions of the trail.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Chatham Bikeways Committee Chairman John O’Toole said. “I happened to pull out the map of ‘Biking in Chatham’ this afternoon before I came down here, and it’s got the Old Colony Rail Trail, but it stops at the Harwich border,” he said.

“I do a little ambassadorship when I ride,” Chatham committee member Steve Wardle said. “Nobody knows what ‘OCRT’ means,” he said. Thanks in part to poor signage, “we meet people all the time who say, how far is it up to Wellfleet?”

The 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail was built in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1998 that work began on the Old Colony Rail Trail spur. The Harwich portion of the trail dead-ended in the woods at the town line until Chatham started construction of its portion of the project in 2003, capping more than 18 years of planning. Officials in both towns plan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Old Colony Rail Trail this year, though only the Harwich portion is 20 years old.

Working together on the trail makes sense for Chatham and Harwich, Nealy said.

“There also could be some cost efficiencies for the two towns,” like sharing the expense of having maps, signs or a logo produced. It is possible that the two towns will need a formal intermunicipal agreement to share some of the work, Nealy said.

The committees seem to favor a simpler, more descriptive name.

“Just the Chatham-Harwich Bike Trail,” Wardle said. “We just have to flip the coin to see who goes first.”

It’s not immediately clear whether the committees have the authority to rename the bike trail, which is owned and maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Harwich committee member Bruce Paige said the matter needs to be researched.

“Did we really name it? Or is it something that just has gone on over time?” he asked.

Chatham’s O’Toole said that, given the delay in his town’s completion of the trail, it’s likely that Chatham simply adopted the name because Harwich had done so.

The committees also favored creation of a new paper map with a digital version published online, possibly as part of a new Facebook page to be created for the trail. The page would also be an opportunity for officials to share trail conditions, Nealy noted.

“A lot of people prefer a paper map that they can stick in a pocket,” Harwich committee member Andrew Docken said.

The committees also talked about standardizing their mile markers along the trail to help people locate themselves on the map or to provide a better location should they need to call 911. Harwich repainted its mile markings last year, starting at the bike rotary in Harwich Center and traveling 3.4 miles to the Chatham line. But in Chatham, the numbers start at the trail’s end near the fire station and work back to the town line. Committee members agreed that the new markings should start at the rotary and end at the Chatham fire station.

Standardized mile markers would “at least give somebody a general sense of where you are,” O’Toole said.

Nealy said her committee will be meeting soon with the organizers of the Harwich Cranberry Festival to discuss some sort of Old Colony Rail Trail 20th anniversary event to be held in September, which would be a good opportunity to start any public education effort about the trail’s new branding. The event might be modeled after the Tour de Chatham event that took place during Chatham’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2012, committee members noted.