PORTLAND – A plan to seek $1 million in federal stimulus money to help create a regional trail system has been stalled by opposition from rail advocates and Portland officials who say they have been left out of the planning process.

At issue is the future use of the trestle bridge over the mouth of Back Cove. Rail access to Portland’s waterfront ended in 1984 when a fire damaged the Grand Trunk Railroad bridge. The swing bridge has been stuck in the open position ever since the fire.

Trail advocates want to retrofit the bridge so pedestrians and bicyclists can cross it. Rail supporters want to preserve the right of way so trains could someday use it to reach the city’s waterfront.

The issue highlights the tension between those who want to convert abandoned rail lines into recreational trails and those that want to preserve rail infrastructure.

The conflict surfaced Tuesday when the executive committee of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System discussed whether to support a planning grant proposal by Portland Trails, the East Coast Greenway Alliance and the South Portland Land Trust.

“Greater Portland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Corridor project,” as the grant application calls it, would fill the “last remaining gaps” in the East Coast Greenway as it lets trail users go from Scarborough to Falmouth.

The project calls for connector trails to the soon-to-be-rebuilt Veterans Memorial Bridge between Portland and South Portland, a trail link between the Bayside Trail and Deering Oaks, and a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Long Creek.

One part of the plan caught the attention of rail advocates: a $4 million retrofit of the trestle bridge to let pedestrians and bicyclists cross Back Cove and continue to Falmouth on the Martins Point Bridge.

Members of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a new lobbying group, spoke against the grant application.

Paul Weiss, a member of the group, said the idea of converting abandoned rail lines into trails has been sold around the country as a way to put them to good use while governments wait for the revival of trains.

The problem, he said, is that the trails develop their own constituency and become politically impossible to dislodge.

Rail supporters are particularly upset that the former Union Branch line in Portland has been converted into a trail, and that the Mountain Division, which connects Westbrook and Fryeburg, is being converted into a trail.

Weiss said the Mountain Division trail is damaging the rail bed, making it even more expensive to reopen it for trains.

Giving up the rail right of way over the trestle bridge would be a “horrible” mistake, he said. “The time has come to use rail for what it is — which is green transportation and taking thousands of cars off the road.”

Portland City Councilor David Marshall, a member of the council’s Transportation Committee, said he didn’t know anything about the proposal until he learned about it last weekend. He said city policymakers must be involved with such grant proposals because they drive planning decisions.

The Transportation Committee plans to take up the issue Aug. 17. Marshall said he believes the committee could support a grant application that allows for the bridge to be used for trains as well as trails.

He said there would still be time to rework the application and submit it before the deadline, which is the end of this month.

Jeff Ryan, chairman of the West End Trails Committee for the South Portland Land Trust, helped to write the application. He said it would be even stronger if it included a rail component and the support of rail advocates.

“It’s all about alternative transportation,” he said. “It would be shortsighted not to include rail as part of the discussion. If we can share the road bed, let’s do it.”

But Nan Cumming, executive director of Portland Trails, said that there isn’t enough time to rewrite the application.Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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