Alden and Joyce Greenacre of Windham walk a section of the Mountain Division Rail Trail in Gorham Monday. A bill before the Legislature would expand the trail 28 miles from Standish to Fryeburg. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Plans to expand the multi-use Mountain Division Rail Trail from the Sebago Lake region to the White Mountains of New Hampshire took a step forward last week.

It’s “a great public asset that has been wasting away for 40 years,” said Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, who has sponsored a bill to study building a trail on 28 miles of old Mountain Division Rail track from Standish to Fryeburg. The bills is now ready for debate and Bennett said he expects it will pass before the end of the legislative session next month.

The trail would pass through Windham, Gorham, Standish, Baldwin, Hiram, Brownfield and Fryeburg, and link with two sections of the the existing Mountain Division Rail Trail: a 5-mile stretch that connects Windham, Gorham and Standish and a 4-mile stretch in Fryeburg.

The bill, LD 672, asks the Department of Transportation to study the environmental and economic impacts of building the trail, the cost and a timeline. The transportation committee voted May 21 to recommend the bill to the full bodies of the House and Senate.

The Mountain Division Rail has not been used by passenger trains since 1983 when freight service stopped. Passenger service was suspended in 1958 and any sort of train activity is unlikely to start back up on the tracks anytime soon.

The rail line “runs through some of the most scenic parts on Maine,” including Sebago Lake shores, Baldwin mountains and the Saco River, said Bennett, whose Senate district covers part of the Sebago Lake region.

While much of the existing Mountain Division Rail Trail runs alongside rail tracks, Bennett said the railbed in many spots from Standish to Fryeburg would be paved over.

If Bennett’s bill is successful, it would launch the second feasibility study for Mountain Division Rail Trail expansion. Another study is underway to look at the possibility of extending the rail trail eastbound from South Windham to downtown Westbrook and eventually past Rock Row and into Portland.

“When the trail is completed and connected into Portland the distance will be 62 miles to the Mt. Washington Valley,” said Mountain Division Alliance President David Kinsman, one of 199 people who testified before the transportation committee on Bennett’s bill.

“It will be one of the longest paved rail trails in New England and will be a destination for locals and visitors alike. People riding the trail will be looking for places to stay, eat and shop, bringing much needed economic activity to the towns of western Maine,” Kinsman told the committee.

Kinsman said he has spoken to town officials and business along similar trails throughout the country and in Canada. Bennett’s bill has letters of support from each of the communities the Standish to Fryeburg stretch would pass through.

“All these trails have added to the health and well-being of their communities as well as economic benefits by adding new businesses and growing existing ones,” he said.

Expansion of the Mountain Division Rail Trail has been listed as one of the 13 rail trails advocated for in Maine Trails Coalition’s Rail Trail Vision Plan.

“Maine is currently losing out on increased tourism dollars and healthier, connected communities that rail trails would bring,” said Paul Drinan of Westbrook, a  member of the Mountain Division Alliance Leadership team and the Maine Trails Coalition Rail Trail Committee.

“Maine’s Climate Action Plan calls for using available infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions,” he said in his testimony. “Rail trails would do so in multiple ways, including eliminating car trips by creating carbon-free, low/no cost barrier, transportation alternatives like walking and biking. Moreover, rail trails protect these valuable public lands from development and preserve the ability to use them for trains once again in the future if needed.”

Trail expansion has the support of Alden and Joyce Greenacre, Windham residents who frequently use the section of the Mountain Division Rail Trail that cuts through Shaw Park in Gorham.

“I would support that, anything we can do to get people our recreating. It gets people outside,” Joyce Greenacre said Monday.

The idea also has the support of Windham resident Phea Tracy, who said on the trail Monday that she walks her foster dog there three to four days a week.

Nate Hendricks and Kat Wells, of South Portland, try to get to the trail a few times a summer.

“We love it here,” Hendricks said.

 

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