The old Central Maine Railroad station in Gardiner (built 1911, now housing a marijuana business) would be the northern end of Merrymeeting Trail along the same rail line. (Portland Phoenix/Douglas Rooks)
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Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, the East Coast Greenway has sought to create a 3,000-mile bicycle-pedestrian pathway from Key West, Florida, to Calais – a vision fully equal to the Appalachian Trail, whose terminus at Mount Katahdin has become the summit of hiking achievement for generations of outdoors enthusiasts.

Unlike the AT, the Greenway is designed to connect urban population centers, and to become as viable for commuting as shuttles, buses and commuter rails; one of its most successful segments is in the “Research Triangle” around Raleigh, North Carolina, where thousands of cyclists use it daily.

Portland became a focus early on, and was a launching point for an exploratory tour in 1994; a decade later, seven cyclists started from Calais and traveled the entire route in 55 days. Maine, with its relatively wide-open spaces, seems an easy sell for construction of a recreational pathway heavily used by tourists.

But that hasn’t been the case.

The Gardiner end of the Kennebec Rail Trail, built in the late 1990s and opened in 2001, and financed largely by a federal grant. It extends 6.5 miles to the Augusta waterfront, and is rail-with-trail the entire length, except for a short road section in Hallowell. (Portland Phoenix/Douglas Rooks)

The Eastern Trail – which runs 29 miles from Kennebunk to South Portland and includes a highly visible bridge over the Maine Turnpike – is a designated Greenway segment. It follows an active underground natural gas pipeline built on an old railroad right of way, with full support from the pipeline owners.

In other areas, however, trail advocates have run into strong, and sometimes unstinting resistance from passenger rail enthusiasts, who insist that every rail and tie must remain in place – even on abandoned, often state-owned lines.

The crown jewel of potential trail commuter routes in greater Portland is the old St. Lawrence & Atlantic line that runs from downtown Portland across Back Cove, behind the B&M Baked Beans plant and then north to Yarmouth for nine miles. It parallels the Maine Central tracks that host the Amtrak Downeaster, and ended freight service in 2013. Yet suggestions for converting it to trail use remain embryonic.

The forces contending over the future of old rail lines were on full display March 5, during a hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on LD 2124, a governor’s bill to create a Rail Corridor Use Advisory Council.

Legislative impasse

The late-filed bill was the Department of Transportation’s attempt to resolve deadlocks over two bills concerning other Greenway segments: the Merrymeeting Trail, 25 miles from Topsham to Gardiner (LD 1141), and an extension of the Downeast Sunrise Trail, an 86-mile segment in Hancock and Washington counties, by another 15 miles, from Ayers Junction to the Greenway terminus in Calais.

Sponsors of those bills, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, and Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, urged adoption of the advisory council as a way of allowing the committee, as Warren put it, “to get out of the middle of the annual railroad/trail arguments.” She called it “the most comprehensive, fair and thorough process” she’s seen.

Moore talked about the positive impact of the Downeast Sunrise Trail – up to $1 million annually – for communities from Ellsworth to Machias that have few other economic opportunities. She said removing rails and rebuilding the railbed, fixing washouts and bridge failures, makes the return of rail service more likely; existing ties and rails would have to be replaced anyway.

Advocates emphasize that trails on state “railbanked” corridors are interim uses, and that – should trains prove feasible – must be relocated. Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, pointed to Denton, Texas, where such a trail was moved when a new freight line was opened.

Frank O’Hara, a planning consultant from Hallowell who helped design the Kennebec Rail Trail – a 6.5-mile “rail-with-trail” Greenway segment from Augusta to Gardiner – said Merrymeeting Trail advocates know that, if rail returns, the trail “will have to be replaced, and we will have to find a new route. … We understand the law.”

Rail advocates, for the most part, weren’t buying it. Christopher Dorion of Portland didn’t even acknowledge trails as transportation, claiming the DOT advisory panels “would allow for potential council members that seek to convert existing rail infrastructure to non-transportation uses.”

Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition insisted “this bill must not pass,” and warned the committee against allowing “non-rail advocates” to “petition and advise” DOT on “uses for existing railway corridors contrary to the general welfare of the people.”

Wayne Davis of Trainriders Northeast – whose advocacy of passenger rail led to the return of Maine service, via the Downeaster – took a more measured approach, testifying neither for nor against. He questioned the idea that trail construction can improve rail corridor viability, saying “removal of the rail and ballast (can) make it cost-prohibitive to renew rail service,” and that only 100 miles of rail line, nationwide, have been reconverted to rail.

Nina Fisher, DOT deputy commissioner, was at pains to assure lawmakers that the advisory councils, separate for each trail request, “will only make recommendations to the commissioner. Every project will return to you for a decision.”

Where’s the money?

Beyond the feasibility of trail construction, there is also the question of costs. Meghan Russo, DOT’s legislative liaison, said there’s little if any money in the budget for non-motorized transportation. While the annual $100 million bond issues do designate $15-$20 million for non-highway uses, any trail project would have to compete with airports, rail lines, and seaports.

All bond proceeds go to fund DOT’s three-year work plan, and, for now, there are no designated trail projects. Yet trail advocates say a commitment to planning is essential to eventual funding.

Dick Woodbury, a former state senator from Yarmouth who serves on the East Coast Greenway’s national board, said the preferred model involves local groups like the Merrymeeting Trail Blazers and the Sunrise Trail Coalition taking the lead. For the Portland-to-Yarmouth stretch, the fledgling Casco Bay Trail Alliance is now organizing, with a vision of connecting from the Eastern Promenade Path in Portland through Freeport – where L.L. Bean is a big supporter – up to Brunswick.

The DOT councils, Woodbury said, are a good first step: “If we’re going to tackle climate change and live healthier lives, we’ve got to take action, across the board.”

Kristine Keeney, the Greenway’s New England coordinator, sees trail and rail advocates as natural allies, and said, “We love taking our bikes to a rail station and boarding the train.” Woodbury points out that the proposed Amtrak extension to Lewiston involves new stations at Maine Turnpike Exit 53 in West Falmouth and Exit 75 in Auburn – natural connections for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit uses.

Getting there may not be easy, or quick, advocates say. But if Portland’s wealth of trails contributing to its urban amenities is any indication, Mainers may come to appreciate trails statewide – just as the Downeaster has turned many train skeptics into believers.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.

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