Fairfielders' top concerns with a proposed biking and walking trail along the Merritt Parkway from Greenwich through Stratford reflect concerns of residents in other towns where the project may be developed.

"Safety is one issue, people crossing the road," Brian Taylor of Merwin's Lane said, referring to points along the proposed 37.5-mile trail that would cross heavily traveled roads in Fairfield, such as Black Rock Turnpike, Congress Street, Cross Highway and Easton Turnpike. "Because of the excessive speed [of motorists], I'm afraid for people's safety." "I'm also concerned it opens up things for potential new crime because you have more access to houses and people's cars," Taylor added.

The state Department of Transportation held a forum Tuesday night in Osborn Hill School to gather feedback on the proposed trail, which would be about 10 feet wide and run, in most places, through the middle of the Merritt Parkway's 300-foot-wide right-of-way on the parkway's southern side. The trail would be designed for advanced bicyclists, novice bicyclists, walkers, joggers and possibly horse riders.

Roughly 40 people at the Fairfield forum divided into groups to discuss the proposed trail, and then DOT officials gave a summary of each group's comments. Participants then identified their top concerns by placing green, red or yellow stickers on sheets of paper that listed all the concerns that had been mentioned.

The top concern for Fairfielders, based on the stickers, appeared to be how much the trail would cost to build and maintain.

William Britnell, a principal engineer at the DOT, said those costs have not been determined, but added that funding sources to build it could include the DOT, federal grants, a specific appropriation from the state legislature or businesses that may want to sponsor part of the trail. Municipalities, he said, likely wouldn't want to pay the cost of maintaining the trail and the DOT didn't have the staffing to do it. "We're going to have to find some other solution," he said.

Laurie Giannotti, a DOT official, said people in her group suggested the trail could be maintained by Boy Scouts or other service clubs or volunteers.

Britnell said most trail crossings over local roads would be "at grade," meaning a bridge or tunnel for the trail wouldn't be built, though he said each intersection would be reviewed and "a grade separation may be considered." He said the DOT may not be able to build the trail in some parts of the Merritt Parkway's right-of-way and would have to see if a local road instead would be suitable for a multi-use trail.

The DOT's concerns with the proposed trail were similar to those expressed by residents. Britnell said the DOT also wanted to ensure the character of the Merritt Parkway was preserved and that the trail complied with the Americans with Disability Act. He added that it would be difficult to prevent motorcyclists from going onto the trail.

Lesser concerns expressed by Fairfielders Tuesday night include: How the trail would be landscaped to preserve the privacy of abutting homeowners; whether the mix of trail users would be compatible; potential littering by trail users; whether the trail would become a party spot for teenagers; how emergency vehicles would gain access to the trail; the impact of the trail on abutting property values; how people would gain access to the trail, and the possibility that the trail would be a distraction for motorists on the Merritt Parkway.

Access to the trail would be through existing "park and ride" lots, which are not used that much on weekends, when most people would use the trail, according to a DOT handout.

Giannotti said people in her group also wondered who would clear the trail in the winter.

"If the question was about removing snow, it wouldn't be removed," Britnell said, prompting Giannotti to quip, "So dog sled people, you're in."

Benefits of the trail expressed by Britnell and audience members include: Going from town to town without getting in a car; taking bicyclists off roads; offering an alternative way to experience and appreciate the Merritt Parkway; the chance to learn about the parkway and local environment through signs along the trail; offering another venue for people to exercise, and the ability to link the trail with existing north-south trails.

Audience members also said the trail could provide a mostly non-road connection to the Audubon Society, the Binger Open Space, Notre Dame High School, Sacred Heart University, General Electric Co., Dwight School, municipal golf courses and the annual Dogwood Festival in Fairfield's Greenfield Hill neighborhood.

The trail also could prevent the expansion of the Merritt Parkway, provide another way for emergency vehicles to reach the parkway and extend the hours people could ride bikes, since it would be safer than a road at night, some people in the audience also mentioned.

Britnell wasn't surprised by top concerns expressed Tuesday night, saying he heard similar concerns at earlier forums on the trail plans in Stamford, Greenwich and New Canaan. Future forums are planned in Westport, Trumbull, Norwalk and Stratford.

Don Bergmann, a member of Westport's Representative Town Meeting who attended the Fairfield forum, gave a preview of what the DOT will likely hear at its next forum, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 1 at the Westport Police Department.

Westport residents, Bergmann said, are concerned with the removal of trees, whether the trail will really be used, its cost and the safety of trail users. "Will it be used? ... To me that's the bottom line. Do we have examples of pathways along fairly major roads where they are or are not being used?" he said.

Britnell said the DOT staff is neutral on the idea of building the trail and that the final decision would rest with the DOT commissioner, adding that the DOT commissioner answers to the governor. Local approvals wouldn't be needed because the trail would be on state land, he said.

DOT officials plan to return to the eight towns and cities in the fall or winter with a conceptual design of the trail and answers to concerns expressed by residents. Next spring, the DOT plans to do an environmental assessment of the proposed trail, including its socio-economic impact and a cost estimate and, at that point, a decision would be made, Britnell said.

If the DOT goes forward with the trail, it likely would be built first in towns or cities where most residents support it, said David Head, a DOT official.

Funding for the DOT to study the feasibility of building the trail came through a $1.3 million grant from the National Scenic Byways Program, Britnell said.

Andrew Brophy is a freelance writer.