WATERBURY — The ongoing expansion of the Naugatuck River Greenway trail system got a big boost May 15 when the state announced it would provide more than $1.4 million in grant funds toward the project, which, when complete, will wind its way through 44 miles of paved trails in 11 towns.

Jean Baron of Naugatuck sits along the Naugatuck River Greenway at Linden Park, overlooking the river

The greenway project, once complete, will stretch along the Naugatuck River from Derby to Torrington.

It still has a long way to go before it all connects, thus far at only 19 % completion, but those involved in the project say the announcement by Gov. Ned Lamont advances the trail project much further along, specifically in Naugatuck, Torrington, Waterbury and Watertown, which all lie at the heart of the trail, and were big recipients of this latest round of allocations administered by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

In all, approximately $9 million in state grants are being released to plan, build, expand, and improve a total of 50 multiuse trails across Connecticut.

The Borough of Naugatuck will receive a total of $352,800 for its Phase II greenway efforts.

Aaron Burgis of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments administers the Naugatuck River trail expansion. He called Monday’s news a big win for the overall effort, which began nearly a decade ago.

“It’s a very big day. We were very happy to see so many of our towns getting funded,” said Burgis, who explained that building a trail of this level is similar to building an actual road.

Lamont said in a news release the huge response to this year’s grant round demonstrates the high demand for outdoor recreation in the state.

“Our residents and visitors continue to explore state parks, forests, and municipal open spaces and land trust preserves at record levels,” he said.

Lexi Bordas, 6, and her father, AJ make their way along the greenway,

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said her agency has seen demand for outdoor recreation increase dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Annual visits to locations in the state parks and forests reached an estimated 17 million in 2022, a 75 % increase from pre-pandemic levels.

Additionally, she said, the economic value of hiking, climbing, and tent camping increased by 50 % from 2019 to 2021.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the value of outdoor recreation in 2021 contributed nearly $4 billion to the state and supported more than 40,000 jobs.

“These projects are timely and will improve our state’s connectivity and accessibility to open space, which benefits our residents and visitors physically and mentally, enhances our state’s outdoor economy, and makes our state such an attractive place to live,” Dykes said. “Investing in projects that support sustainable commuting opportunities, that reduce pollution from transportation, and provide safe, enjoyable alternatives to car travel are the type of projects we’d love to see in more communities across the state.”

A total of 28 of the awarded projects lie within or serve Connecticut’s most distressed municipalities and environmental justice communities, improving equitable access to outdoor recreation.