Pennsylvania trail guru Carl Knoch said it takes decades to build an off-road, long-distance bike path through urban areas.

In southern Maine it’s been nearly 17 years since the Eastern Trail was launched. And as we close in on two decades of work, the effort behind this urban trail has gained ground, quite literally.

I can attest to that, having spent the past decade waiting for the Eastern Trail Alliance, the nonprofit behind the trail’s development, to make it worth my while as a long-distance cyclist.

Four years ago the Eastern Trail Alliance founder, John Andrews, promised me they’d get me an off-road commuter route from my home in Kennebunkport to Portland. True to his word, it happened a year later when the Eastern Trail bicycle-and-pedestrian bridges were built over Route 1 and Interstate 95, and five miles of trails were added between Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach.

Andrews and his band of bicyclists have proven relentless. And this summer they’re not slowing as they fan out across this trail that now covers 20.7 miles to conduct an economic-impact study to help build support to expand the trail to Wells, South Berwick, Eliot and Kittery.

Not bad for an idea formed less than two decades ago.

In 2001, when I arrived at the Maine Sunday Telegram, all that existed of the trail was a 5-mile section in South Portland. But there was talk of expanding it as far as Kittery. And all I could think was, how likely is that?

On the other hand, you had to agree it was a good idea. So Staff Photographer Greg Rec and I saddled up our road bikes with reporting and photography equipment, and set out to cover the 70-plus miles of the proposed trail that had just been marked along the roads that followed the proposed off-road route.

We started at dawn from the Route 1 bridge over the Piscataqua River in Kittery and rode to dusk, taking photographs along the way and finishing at Bug Light in South Portland, where an editor ferried us back to our cars. Then as we each drove north from the Piscataqua River as the sun set, I worried we’d both fall asleep at the wheel. But I also recalled the sight of old barns, rocky brooks, wildflower fields and birch tree groves. Suddenly I saw this crazy idea anew.

Our ride proved a remarkable journey that showed how beautiful even the most developed parts of Maine are, once you get out of your car and onto a bike seat. And I began to wonder if this idea would bear fruit.

A little more than a decade later, it has.

Today one can cycle from Bug Light in South Portland to Kennebunk, riding on very little roadway while covering 20.7 miles of off-road trail. All that remains is a trail through Wells, York, Kittery, Eliot and South Berwick. Five towns and just 40 miles stand between the Eastern Trail and Maine becoming a state that owns a truly remarkable urban off-road bike path.

Again you’ve got to ask, how likely is that? Well, Andrews said we’re there.

A week ago Knoch, the national trail expert with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, came to speak to the Eastern Trail Alliance in Wells. He shared stories of other urban communities building off-road trails – and there are many – and guided the alliance in its economic impact study this summer.

Knoch calls the study the alliance is conducting a sure-fire way to obtain federal grants and municipal matching funds.

“A bunch of studies done in Pennsylvania and New York helped the New York historical preservation study back in 2007 and 2008, and the methodology we put together has been picked up and used by dozens of states,” he said. “It really is a powerful tool to show communities that trails are beneficial, both from an economic standpoint, and a quality-of-life and health standpoint.”

Knoch believes the Eastern Trail idea will snowball in Maine because he’s seen it happen in other developed areas in the Northeast. He said the more trail the alliance builds, the more other towns will want it.

“The more trail they get built, the more people they get involved, the more powerful the message becomes. Even the most reluctant community will eventually come around,” Knoch said. “As soon as they make the economic impact study public and start taking it to meetings this fall, the impact will be almost immediate.”

Maybe in another 10 years Maine will have a trail stretching from Portland Harbor to Portsmouth Harbor.

And maybe our state will boast a remarkable off-road bicycle byway not unlike the ones that run 17 miles around the Charles River trail in Boston, and 32 miles around Manhattan, and 18 miles along the Potomac River across from D.C., from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.

The Eastern Trail’s band of bicyclists have no doubt it will happen. Certainly they’re not slowing down.

“My dad fell off his bike at 90. He was reading his mail and forgot to peddle. He (simply) switched to a trike. I’m only 77,” Andrews said.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph