In the last few months, the Greater Portland Council of Governments has put forth a plan to construct a walking trail alongside a little-used railroad track running from Portland to Yarmouth. At first glance, this may sound like an intriguing idea, but it is a short-sighted plan that would jeopardize valuable transit alternatives that will be critical for building a sustainable transportation system in Maine.

In the last generation, several Maine governors, from Angus King to John Baldacci, purchased, with bipartisan legislative approval, over 300 miles of railroad lines with the clear objective that these lines would be restored to providing train service throughout the state. They were seen as a critical piece of public infrastructure.

As part of this, in 2007, Maine spent $8 million to preserve the 32 miles of the former St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail Road between the Portland waterfront and Auburn airport for passenger and freight service. Currently, the Sierra Club, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition and the Maine Department of Transportation are working on a plan to restore passenger rail service on this line between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. The Maine Legislature approved $400,000 for this plan, matched by $100,000 from the cities of Lewiston and Auburn.

Passenger trains on this corridor could carry modern, highly efficient, electric-hybrid passenger trains as a commuter service, as well as feed and perhaps expand current Amtrak Downeaster routes. Connecting Portland to Lewiston-Auburn would also enable future passenger train service to the Bethel region and Montreal.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments’ proposed walking trail endangers use of this much-needed rail corridor. There is no room on the line for trails; neither is there time and money to change the grades, crossing bridges, ballasts and rights of way, or current plans to accommodate this trail. Why? Because this line was designed over 150 years ago and rights of way are narrow. The existing bridges, built out of Maine granite and wooden ties, were designed for rail, not for trails. Also, when passenger and freight services are re-established, the right of way will need sections of passing siding tracks, for two-directional travel.

Maine has already realized economic loss from abandoning public rail infrastructure. The Sunrise Trail between Eastport and Ellsworth removed 88 miles of the state-owned Calais Branch railroad for recreation; it is now used as a “high-speed” snowmobile and ATV trail. This is perhaps one of the most expensive such trails in the world, considering that our tax dollars purchased this line with the idea of saving a railroad.

A similar plan led to loss of the Union Branch Railway serving downtown Portland for the Bayside Trail. In Augusta, the Kennebunk Rail-Trail path (and parking lot) is hindering passenger rail transportation there. The Belfast & Moosehead Lake Rail Road is now a trail into Belfast, essentially negating the railroad, relegating it as a tourist excursion. On the Mountain Division rail line between Portland and Fryeburg, bike paths have destroyed that rail bed, while the western Sebago region suffers economic blight.

Make no mistake: These trails have endangered future passenger and freight rail uses. By abandoning these critical arteries of potential clean transportation, we further tie ourselves to an expensive asphalt and concrete automobile-dependent future with more congestion, pollution and high transportation costs. Train transportation can be four to five times more efficient and less polluting than road-based transport. As we have seen in the communities along the Downeaster route, passenger rail can also leverage significant private investment in towns along the line.

We urge the Greater Portland Council of Governments to reconsider its misguided “rail to trail” plan. Now is the time for Maine to preserve and invest in modern rail transportation services.

Sierra Club Maine and the Maine Rail Transit Coalition are sponsoring public forums to discuss expanding and utilizing Maine’s public train infrastructure. Please join us for the next one in Portland on Dec. 6. For more information, visit sierraclub.org/maine.