Kids attending a parks and recreation department camp cross the street where a conceptual pedestrian tunnel would be. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

A cornerstone feature of the conceptual Bayside Park overhaul was scrutinized last Tuesday, when town officials pressed members of the selectboard to assess the feasibility of a pedestrian tunnel connecting Upper and Lower Bayside Park.

“We really need to know [if] this is something that we want to push forward,” parks and recreation department director Glen Cuttitta told the board. “Because we did essentially design the park for a tunnel that may never be built.”

First revealed last September, the multi-phased conceptual park master plan adds a swimming pool, community center, waterfront amphitheater and dog park, with a total projected price tag of about $39 million.

Axel Bishop, a design consultant hired by the town, presented a variety of pedestrian underpass visualizations at a community meeting in June. Some variations included two archways; others featured a climbing structure installed along the tunnel walls.

Last year, Bishop called the passageway the most impactful first step the town could tackle in the project. He placed construction costs around $1.3 million.

But since then, the tunnel has become directly relevant to projects planned in several other town departments, including the public works and planning and zoning.

Those staffers are currently conducting a sewer/stormwater and intersection scoping studies at the Bayside intersection. In a memo to the board, Cuttitta said all parties were moving forward with their planning under the assumption the tunnel would not be built for at least 10 to 15 years.

Even then, public works director Bryan Osborne said relocating a sewer line built through the intersection would cost around $500,000. Plus, he thinks the tunnel’s construction will cost closer to $2 million — a full $700,000 more than Bishop’s original projection.

“The tunnel is a valid idea and has value. I don’t think anyone, at least at the administrative level, is saying that the tunnel should never be built,” Osborne said at the meeting. “But it would appear that in the overall scheme of things, the tunnel might be a lower priority.”

With an extra $2 million, the town could substantially “build out” the nearby Bayside/Hazelett property, Cuttitta added, or contribute funds toward the “laundry list” of other town projects.

Keeping those challenges in mind, Cuttitta said he wanted a clear direction from the board to pass along to Bishop before design plans centering on the tunnel advanced.

“To make it even simpler,” Osborne said, “if the town had $2 million, what would it do first?”

With just three of five members present, the selectboard ultimately elected to push further discussion to the Aug. 22 meeting, but not before selectmen Tom Mulcahy and Herb Downing made their opinions known.

Though he believes the tunnel is key to attracting folks to Colchester, Mulcahy thinks the element should be revisited in 20 years, when officials are looking to the intersection for maintenance anyway.

“I’m in the reverse. I think the tunnel is the linchpin of this project,” selectman Herb Downing replied. “I’d rather spend $2 million on a tunnel that will allow people easy access to get down to the water then build out Bayside/Hazelett.”

But Cuttitta and town manager Dawn Francis quickly pointed out the start-up costs are apt to grow rapidly, Cuttitta noting it would be difficult to “phase” the tunnel in.

Parks and recreation campers wait to cross the street where a conceptual pedestrian tunnel would be. The amenity is a key feature in the Bayside Park Master Plan. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

The grading needed to build the tunnel would require relocating the park’s hard courts, tennis courts and skate park to the Bayside/Hazelett property — an estimated $2.1 million, according to Cuttitta.

Cuttitta added the current pedestrian crossing system could be improved with any intersection update and didn’t necessarily believe the tunnel was the only avenue to shorter wait times.

“Does the tunnel make pedestrian crossing much easier? Yes. But there comes a cost,” Cuttitta said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Downing was undeterred, saying he “saw the town building” the tunnel before any stormwater or sewer infrastructure. He sided with Bishop’s original assessment of the park planning, too, saying features like the amphitheater could wait.

Downing also disagreed with Cuttitta’s characterization of the crosswalk, saying groups endure an extremely lengthy wait and may not all get across in the “tweet cycle.”

“If it means that the upfront costs are $4 million instead of $2 [million], that’s what it is,” Downing countered. “I’d like to see the tunnel in and planned and scoped, and we’ll figure out a way to pay for it.”