In 1997, all John Andrews wanted his Saco Bay Trails volunteers to build was a trail from Scarborough to Saco — a pathway through three towns.

A town officer told him he’d never get a bridge over Route 1, and support for the trail seemed minimal.

“Most of the people at that meeting are now dead,” Andrews said. “This December, it will be 14 years since we started.”

In December, Andrews and people from eight towns will celebrate the 21 miles of linear off-road bicycle and pedestrian trail they’ve built between South Portland and Kennebunk — and the opening of not only the Eastern Trail’s bridge over Route 1 but also another spanning the width of Interstate 95.

“All I had was the vision,” Andrews said. “The thing just exploded.”

In recent years, the vision of an off-road trail running the length of southern Maine has come closer to a reality as others have joined and worked alongside Andrews on the Eastern Trail.

This year, with an unprecedented number of off-road miles built on the unique path, those involved say there’s no stopping now.

‘HE KEPT AT IT’

The Eastern Trail Alliance was incorporated in 1999 with the goal of building a 55-mile off-road trail from Kittery to Casco Bay. It started with Andrews, but others in towns along the trail soon joined and stayed on.

“The fact is when I walked into city hall 11 years ago and met John, the guy came on like a load of bricks. I held him at arm’s length and said, ‘Good luck on your trail,’” said Bob Hamblen, Saco’s city planner. “He kept at it. And it still took me a few years, but at this point I’ve been bitten.”

Now Hamblen puts in eight hours a week on the trail. Five years ago, he said progress on the trail was unlikely to move fast. Today Hamblen is getting ready to celebrate one of the Eastern Trail’s biggest showpieces: a bridge over busy Route 1, paid for with the help of a $500,000 bond approved by his town’s voters in 2007.

“It will be a billboard,” Hamblen said proudly.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Trail bridge over I-95 that will open soon will have all the power of social media. It may be used daily only by cyclists in Kennebunk, Arundel and Biddeford, but it will be seen by thousands of motorists, commuters and tourists coming to Maine.

“In many ways, it was a psychological barrier to all the people involved. The turnpike was more than a simple bridge,” said Tad Redway, Arundel’s town planner. “I’m very encouraged we’ve gotten as far as we have. There have been a lot of problem areas. But now we have people looking to hold marathons on the thing.”

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS

When Dan Stewart took over as the bike and pedestrian coordinator at the Maine Department of Transportation six years ago, only a few miles of the trail had been built across the Scarborough Marsh. Some $10 million later, there will be 21 miles completed by the end of this year — with nearly a fourth of it is getting built in 2011.

“This is most likely the best year, if not the best year, for the ET for any trail in Maine,” Stewart said. “I think that’s amazing that one of the most populated areas with the highest density of cities is going to be connected with an off-road, safe bike-ped trail.”

While the 2011 projects were funded in past years, these new sections will open in the coming months:

South Portland will extend its trail at Wainwright Field Sports Complex to the Scarborough line, a $200,000 project to finish paving 0.3 miles.

The Old Orchard Beach section will expand 4.37 miles into Saco and run over Route 1.

The 5.7 miles stretching from Biddeford to the Kennebunk town line will be expanded to 6.2 miles with the new turnpike bridge.

Yet none of those working on the Eastern Trail today thought a decade ago that the trail would be where it is.

“I saw it in ’84. I used to jog it, to go behind the golf course, across the marsh,” said Bruce Gullifer, Scarborough’s community services director. “It was beautiful. I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense. This should be something everyone enjoys.’

“They’re doing it in other communities, in Colorado, in Wyoming. We’re just catching up.”

Gullifer is the one member of the 11-town Eastern Trail Management District well versed in the use the trail gets. He said the number of people who come to walk the seven-year-old section over the Scarborough Marsh is staggering.

“Use was immediate,” Gullifer said. “It’s the biggest marsh in the state. And people were looking for outdoor recreation and if they can go across the marsh, they want to. It has bird watching, canoeing, jogging, walkers, all of the recreational use. On any given day there are 10 to 15 cars out there.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Now Scarborough is working on a $150,000 engineering study to get over the Nonesuch River. Then there is the job of getting around the Amtrak tracks in Scarborough, a roughly $3 million project.

This section is the part of the trail everyone calls the critical gap, connecting the most developed parts of Maine with a trail that runs through woods, fields and over marshland. When the gap is closed, a full 16 miles of contiguous trail will span from Saco through four population centers to Casco Bay.

The MDOT funds just $8 million of the state’s $36 million requests for trail projects every two years, and Stewart thinks it will get built.

“It is one of the most, if not the most, critical gap sections in the state of Maine,” he said.

Only one person working on the Eastern Trail does not think about this important connection or the difference it could make in the way people commute.

John Andrews, as always, is already 20 miles down the road, looking 10 years out. At 74, the retired engineer is still an avid cyclist, but no longer a patient one.

The second half of the trail is all he thinks about now.

So when the members of the Eastern Trail celebrate next month at the opening of the I-95 pedestrian and bicycle bridge, Andrews will be standing over the interstate looking south.

“I talk to people in those towns and they say, ‘We’re laying off teachers and closing town halls one or two days a week. But we’ll help you,’” Andrews said. “I think the bridge over the turnpike demonstrates people can do it. There is a bike trail around Manhattan Island. And there is no way you can build a bike trail around Manhattan and not one from South Berwick to Eliot and Kittery.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph