In the last chance for public comment, southern Maine residents strongly favored the option to turn the former St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad into a kind of trail that would begin at Portland’s Ocean Gateway.
Several residents who spoke at a meeting at the Greely Center for the Arts in Cumberland on Monday night also favored preserving the ability to restore rail for passenger service if that ability were to arise.
The three options being considered by the Portland to Auburn Rail Use Advisory Council are to maintain the status quo of the existing rail in the hope that freight or passenger returns, replace the rail with a trail for bicyclists and pedestrians, or to do a hybrid, according to Nathan Howard, the director of rail transportation for the Maine Department of Transportation.
The 15-member advisory council was part of a larger DOT effort created by the Legislature in 2021 to make recommendations on state-owned rail corridors. It’s up to them to make a recommendation on the use of the corridor, but the decision goes back to the Legislature if they propose anything other than maintaining the existing trail line.
The 26.5-mile corridor in question connects Portland to Auburn.
According to Howard, “most of the folks” who have reached out to him have supported the walking and cycling trail option. A similar process was followed for a former rail line from Standish to Fryeburg.
Phil Goff, who manages the rail project with the consulting firm VHB, estimated that infrastructure would cost between $13.4 million and $31 million, depending on the kind of freight service. It would cost $274 million to make the line ready for a 60-m.p.h. passenger rail, he said.
The hybrid “rail with trail” option, which would construct an adjacent trailway next to the rail line, would cost $90 million for a gravel road and $94.3 million for paved road. For just a trail, it would cost $47.5 million to create a gravel path and $55 million for a paved path.
Several people spoke in favor of some form of trail being established. Colin Durrant, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and a Yarmouth resident, said he was a strong supporter of the trail option, which would make a “transportation arterial” and would help take cars off the road.
Paul Weiss, a founding member of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said he supported use of an option for passenger rail, and would like to see an electrified rail be placed there.
“We’re at a point where we need to be moving away from car transportation,” he said.
Grayson Lookner, a state representative from Portland, spoke against removing the rail and maintaining the status quo. He said having rail in the area would be a benefit to commuters, which would mean fewer drivers on the road.
“Cars off the road mean safer communities,” he said.