HALLOWELL — An ambitious proposed path connecting the Kennebec River Rail Trail and the Androscoggin Riverwalk has a base of support laid, but it’s far from paved.

People use the Kennebec River Rail Trail near its northern terminus in Augusta’s Waterfront Park. The trail currently runs from downtown Augusta through Hallowell and Farmingdale to Gardiner. A decade-old proposal would create the Merrymeeting Trail, which would connect the Kennebec River Trail to a system in Topsham. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The roughly 30-mile Merrymeeting Trail would link the Kennebec trail, which runs from Augusta to Gardiner, and the Androscoggin walk, which connects Topsham and Brunswick.

The latest boost for the missing link came last week with a unanimous vote of support from the Hallowell City Council. The city joins Richmond, Gardiner and Bowdoinham as municipalities that officially have thrown their support behind the plan.

But a big hurdle remains. The project would cost millions of dollars and it is unclear where public and private funding would be obtained at a time when funding for other transportation projects is being cut.

Councilor Maureen Aucoin, who lives along the dormant railroad tracks in Hallowell, said she would favor using them for the trail, because residents commonly walk on them already. She also said trail landscaping would clean up the debris now found on the tracks.

The connector trail, which has been proposed for about a decade, is also the subject of a resolution before the Legislature.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is the sponsor of L.D. 1141,  “Resolve, Directing the Department of Transportation To Construct the Merrymeeting Trail from Topsham to Gardiner,” which would have the transportation department examine the trail proposal as part of its planning process.

“It’s to point the (transportation department) in the right direction and it’s to get moving on what the (department) has declared a trail of statewide significance,” she said.

Hallowell resident Frank O’Hara, who addressed the council Monday, said an estimate from 2010 predicted the trail would cost $8 million if created over the existing railroad tracks; the estimate to build it alongside the tracks was $52 million.

Warren said the trail, if put over the tracks, could be reclaimed by the transportation department if commuter rail service is restored.

“It’s an opportunity to use it for its best use right now,” she said.

Warren said in an interview that she favored a “public-private partnership” for funding, meaning some money from taxpayers would be used and other funding would come from donations or similar sources.

“We are going to be going to a lot of companies that are local to the trail that have stated, in their mission, support outside activities,” she said. “We think it’s a real opportunity for local hospitals or other companies … if they want to help us.”

And there is support for the project outside council and Legislative chambers.

From left, Anne Marie Riley of Washington state, Kim Cutler of Connecticut and Chelsea Cutler-Worcester of Vassalboro pose at the foot of the Kennebec River Rail Trail in downtown Hallowell. The women said they support the expansion of the trail to Topsham via the proposed Merrymeeting Trail. Kennebec Journal photo by Sam Shepherd

On Wednesday, Chelsea Cutler-Worcester, of Vassalboro, was in downtown Hallowell at the foot of the Kennebec River Rail Trail with Kim Cutler, of Connecticut, and Anne Marie Riley, of Washington state. All three said they support expanding the trail because it could help visitors explore more Maine towns.

“I think it’s nice to have more options for places to walk,” Cutler-Worcester said, adding that she uses the trail a couple of times a year as a safe place to walk with her daughter.

“Anything that can promote walkability is great,” Riley said.

Testimony was heard by the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation earlier this month. Several private citizens testified in favor of the bill, saying it could help stimulate economies in the towns it passes through and promote a healthy lifestyle for residents.

But others oppose the proposal, notably the Maine Department of Transportation.

The department already faces challenges paying for planned projects because of escalating costs. This month, it slashed more than $59 million in road and bridge projects from its annual work plan as a result of budget constraints and rising construction costs. Nationwide, construction costs hit a 10-year high last year and highway construction costs rose almost 13 percent in 2018, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Meghan Russo, the transportation department’s manager of legislative and constituent services, testified against the resolution on May 7. She noted that the project would be more expensive than estimated in 2010.

“Nine years have passed … in which degradation of the facilities has occurred and construction costs have increased,” she wrote. “It is extremely likely that both of the options … would be considerably costlier today.”

Russo said L.D. 1141 would also fly in the face of the state’s Rail Preservation Act, which says that the transportation department “may not dismantle” state-owned track unless it is determined “that removal of a specific length of rail owned by the state will not have a negative impact on a region or on future economic opportunities for that region.”

Russo said about $9.2 million of federal, state, and local funding is going toward trail systems across the state in the department’s current three-year work plan. Department spokesman Paul Merrill said no trail projects were cut this year as a result of the “serious funding issues.”

Warren said she was not surprised by the department’s opposition, because it resists short-term, mandated projects and favors longer-term work plans.

“We don’t want people going in and directing DOT to do projects,” she said. “They come out and oppose every piece of legislation (directing them to do something because) it’s just not the process.”

Richard Rudolph, chairman of the Rail Users’ Network, an independent national organization that represents rail passengers, also opposed the bill. He said the return of a railroad would be a larger economic boon than a bicycle path.

Rudolph said service between Brunswick and Bangor could provide options for commuters and vacationers, and force economic development around train stations. He cited Portland’s Thompson’s Point – home to a concert venue, restaurants and bars – as an example of infrastructure that has popped up around transportation hubs.

“You could see this as a commuter service … that people might hop on for work.” Rudolph said. “It makes no financial sense (to build a bicycle path) at this time.”

O’Hara disagreed with Rudolph’s assessment, saying implementing rail service would cost people more than it would return economically. The Associated Press reported in March that a Lewiston-to-Portland passenger rail service could cost $300 million. O’Hara said passenger service would be the first priority if the transportation department wanted to restore it, but questioned consumer demand for the service.

“The average ridership from Brunswick to Portland (on the Amtrak Downeaster) is eight people per trip,” he said. “If passenger rail was to come (where the Merrymeeting Trail is proposed,) it would take an hour and 45 minutes at least to go from Augusta to Portland.”

He also said Maine could tap into “bicycle tourism” with the trail, which could see people from Boston taking the train to Brunswick to get on the trail and travel to Augusta.

When asked about the economic comparison between rail travel through towns and recreational trails through towns, Warren mentioned the Trek Across Maine – a popular biking event that leads participants through a number of Maine municipalities – as an example of an economic stimulant that will pass through Hallowell because it has a recreational trail.