SCARBOROUGH — While the first frigid gusts of winter swept across the Scarborough Marsh last week, Janice Cohen had warmer thoughts as she walked her black Labrador, Abe, along the Eastern Trail. When Cohen learned the trail would be extended, she stopped to envision the impact.
“We bought our home next to the Eastern Trail because of the Eastern Trail,” said Cohen, who moved to Portland from Hallowell two years ago.
“I believe in community. Walking on the same trail every day, you get to know the people who use it. People have a safe place to walk. It connects people. Roads don’t connect people, but trails do.”
This time next year, work will begin on the 1.6-mile section of the Eastern Trail that will connect South Portland to Scarborough, linking four towns along a 16-mile off-road path that runs along the coast in the most developed part of Maine. And users of the trail are delighted about the plans to close the gap over the Nonesuch River.
The trail is envisioned as a 64-mile off-road path for cyclists and pedestrians, reaching from South Portland to Kittery. The nonprofit Eastern Trail Alliance and the municipalities along the southern Maine coast are behind the effort to extend the trail. The alliance said in November that it needs just $600,000 to complete its $3.8 million capital campaign to close the gap between South Portland and Scarborough and build two bridges over the Nonesuch River and Pan Am Railroad.
The project received $1.5 million from the Maine Department of Transportation and $1.2 million from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System. Joyce Taylor, the chief engineer for DOT, said the department will wait for the alliance to raise their share.
Right now, the Eastern Trail in South Portland, known as the Greenbelt, stretches more than six miles from Bug Light to the Wainwright Sports Complex. On the other side of the Nonesuch River, the trail picks up and runs more than eight miles across Scarborough Marsh and through woods in Old Orchard Beach to Saco.
Farther down the coast, another 6.2-mile off-road, stone-dust section of the Eastern Trail connects Biddeford, Arundel and Kennebunk.
For those who have worked on the Eastern Trail for 20 years, the section over the Nonesuch River has been a critical, difficult link.
“I took on working on the Greenbelt in the mid-90s, and it’s one of those projects I pretty much never let go of,” said Jim Gailey, a former South Portland city manager and current Cumberland County assistant county manager.
“I was one of the early members of the Eastern Trail when there were just five or six of us around a table talking about this dream of creating a Kittery-to-South-Portland trail. That section over the Nonesuch River is a key component to the entire trail.”
A week ago, many users on the trail in Scarborough and South Portland were delighted to learn the trail in South Portland and Scarborough would link up at last.
Ron Currier of Scarborough said he looks forward to heading out on the new stretch on his bicycle in warmer weather. “I use the trail all the time,” said Currier, 52. “Right now, I have to bike on the road out Route 77 or Black Point Road. I absolutely would bike all the way to Bug Light.”
Trail users at Bug Light Park in South Portland said a trail leaving from Portland Harbor was something to celebrate.
“That’s kind of cool,” said Malorrie Nadeau of Bath. “I started biking in June and the biking scene in Portland is really big and getting bigger. I grew up in Millinocket, so I was not a biker growing up. It’s wonderful for travel and exercise.”
Holly Martzial, a South Portland yoga instructor, uses the Greenbelt every day to walk her dog. On this day, she came to do yoga in the snow at Bug Light Park and was thrilled to learn of the trail’s expansion.
“Of course I’ll bike down to Scarborough Marsh,” Gifford said. “I bike all over. You can get to Scarborough Marsh now if you know where to go (on the roads). But this will make it easy for those who don’t, and they won’t have to bike on busy roads.”
Even those who said they’d never cover the contiguous 16 miles from South Portland to Saco by bike were glad for those who soon could.
“It’s awesome the DOT gave them money,” said Tom Foley of Portland, who visited Bug Light Park for birding on Tuesday. “It shouldn’t just be about giving money for roads. People travel by other means.”