March 4, 2011

Advocates of trail to Fryeburg say rail project throws plans off-track

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

Advocates of a walking and biking trail that could someday link Fryeburg to Portland are trying to delay the reconstruction of the Mountain Division Rail Line, which is due to start this month.

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Old railroad lights sit idle where the Sebago to the Sea Trail ends for now in South Windham. About six miles of paved trail have been completed next to the track from Standish to South Windham.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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The Sebago to the Sea Trail, which would run for 52 miles from Portland to Fryeburg, ends for now at Route 202 in South Windham.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Although the contract for the $4 million job has been signed and rails have been delivered, trail committees and snowmobilers are asking state transportation officials to put the project on hold.

The issue pits rail proponents against the trail's advocates and threatens to fracture a long-term effort by both groups to create alternatives to highway transportation between the coast and western Maine.

Trail supporters have dubbed the project the "railroad to nowhere," while rail proponents say the controversy threatens a major economic spur for the region.

The conflict centers on five miles of the Mountain Division Rail Line between Bridge Street in Westbrook and Route 202 in South Windham. The state bought that section in 2007 from Pan Am Railways, which sold the rails and ties as salvage.

The state had bought other parts of the Mountain Division line in the 1990s, with the goal of creating a recreational trail next to the railway. In recent years, hikers and snowmobilers have been allowed to use the five miles of empty rail bed.

That section is part of a proposed 52-mile trail from Fryeburg to Portland. About six miles of paved trail have been completed next to the track from South Windham to Standish. The state has funded a 1.25-mile section of paved trail along the track in Fryeburg, and it's due to be built this summer.

In June, Maine voters approved a $47.8 million transportation bond that includes $4 million to restore the track along the Mountain Division line, to reopen the line to freight service. The state said recently that the trail will be closed to recreational use once construction starts March 22.

That announcement drew protests from recreational users, including snowmobilers who use the rail line as a highway to Fryeburg. "It is foolishness," said Dan McCarthy, president of the Westbrook Trailblazers snowmobile club.

Trail advocates say it makes no sense to rebuild the railway now. Even after the five-mile reconstruction, the state will have to find another $21 million or so to make improvements above South Windham.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who supported making the Mountain Division Railway part of June's bond package, said he hopes to win support to put a bond issue before voters this year to complete the improvements.

But trail advocates say that could take years, given the state's fiscal crisis and the anti-spending mood in the Republican-led State House.

Trail users are merely asking the state to put the construction on hold to allow time to make the trail part of the project, said Dave Kinsman, president of the Mountain Division Alliance, which formed in 1994 to promote the recreational trail and keep the railway open.

If the track is rebuilt without engineering and planning for the trail, it may no longer be possible to fit both. "We don't see what the big rush is," said Kinsman.

Meanwhile, Windham and Westbrook are awaiting word on their application for $3.4 million in state money to engineer and build a recreational trail along the railway.

Some rail supporters scoff at the economic impact of the trail compared with the potential economic benefits of freight service. Western Maine communities are pushing for the restoration of freight service to Portland to spark development in their region.

"It really is an issue of the common good," said Larry Seidl, owner of L.E. Seidl Trucking in Baldwin and president of the Baldwin Business Association.

(Continued on page 2)

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