Study says Greenway will pay off for towns

Regos Domingos, of Naugatuck, walks his dog Otis, a beagle and chihuahua mix, on the Naugatuck River Greenway near Linden Park in November 2015. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — A planned 44 mile trail running from Torrington to Derby could cost $77.2 million to complete by 2031, but would generate hundreds of millions of dollars more in local economic and health benefits.

That’s the conclusion of a study conducted by University of Connecticut economists.

A recently completed draft economic impact analysis comes with astonishing estimates. It claims the trail, completed by 2031, would generate $85.2 million in consumer spending yearly, $71.1 million in yearly health benefits, add 2,800 jobs to the region, increase personal income of $412 million and disposable income by $332 million.

Not bad for a paved trail.

An author of the study, and staff with the regional planning agency that commissioned it, acknowledge they were initially surprised by the numbers. But they’re also confident in the economic model.

Fred Carstensen, head of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at UConn, said any kind of comprehensive analysis would show the planned trail is a good economic bet.

“These are permanent benefits that flow out of this kind of development,” Carstensen said. “Even if we are unduly optimistic and we are off by an order of magnitude, it’s still a much larger value than most people would have thought possible.”

The study accounts for increasing land values, consumer spending by trail users, commuting potential, increasing the area’s attraction to potential employers and health benefits.

Carstensen said his team was able to incorporate health benefits due to recent data from the U.S. Surgeon General. To his knowledge, it’s the first time this data has been incorporated into this type of study.

“This is one of those very subtle things,” Carstensen said. “We have monetized the benefits that flow to people because they don’t have a coronary, because they don’t have a chronic disease or the chronic disease is held in remission.”

The trail is being planned, designed and built in sections, with different communities along its route moving at different speeds according to ease of securing land and funding.

A little more than four miles has been built so far, with sections in Derby, Ansonia, Beacon Falls and Naugatuck.

The study says those small sections are already reaping huge benefits, including $5.8 million in annual consumer spending and $10.4 million in annual health benefits.

A finished trail would connect Torrington, Harwinton, Litchfield, Thomaston, Watertown, Waterbury, Naugatuck, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Ansonia and Derby along the Naugatuck River.

Mark Nielsen, director of planning for the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, said he’s working to extrapolate benefits to individual communities.

Nielson is hoping to present findings to mayors, first selectmen and other civic leaders in April through June, to shore up support for the trail.

“We want to hand each town a snapshot of what is needed to be built in each town, how much it might cost, the time it would take to plan and build something like that and the likely economic benefits that will accrue from that section,” Nielsen said.

Most communities are already supportive of the general concept, Nielsen said.

There are federal and state funding sources for these sorts of trail. Nielsen acknowledged, however, that these sources would have to grow to make a 2031 completion feasible.

Nielsen has faith in the economic model used for the study, but still recommends not getting hung up on the striking numbers.

“The real compelling story is these trails will have a good, positive, benefit for the communities that have them.”

In developing the study, researchers counted users of the existing sections, and similar nearby trails in Torrington and Middlebury.

The 4.6-mile Middlebury Greenway cuts through the town center, on the opposite side of the Middlebury Road from Realtor Donna Bannon’s office.

Bannon said she walks the trail every chance she gets. Coworkers participate in an annual cleanup. She said the trail is popular with all ages, walkers and bicyclists.

“I think people really see it as a benefit of living in this community,” Bannon said during a recent interview. “We have people buying homes who ask: ‘How far are we from the walking trail?’”

Long-serving Middlebury First Selectmen Ed St. John said work began in 1985 and completed about 2000.

St. John said he had many challengers when he pushed for the trail in the 1980s. There were complaints from neighbors. There were questions about the need and cost. Those complaints quickly dried up after the trail opened, St. John said. While he can’t speculate on the economic benefits, St. John said the well-used greenway is a hit.

“I took more political heat for that Greenway than any other project we’ve ever done in Middlebury, but today it’s the most well-received project,” St. John said.