Portland is one step closer to building a loop trail around the peninsula.

City officials said the state has agreed to convert the Union Branch Corridor rail line into a multi-use trail for bikes and pedestrians stretching between Forest and Park avenues.

The $1.6 million project to build the roughly three-quarter-mile path would be funded by the state and is part of a larger land deal approved unanimously by the City Council on Monday.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who leads the Housing and Economic Development Committee, which recommended the exchange in a 4-0 vote last month, said the proposal helps get the city closer to meeting its long-term goal of creating a bike-pedestrian loop trail around the peninsula.

“It’s another step in the right direction to create connectivity,” Thibodeau said. “I think this is a long time coming.”

The land swap would give the state ownership of the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street and the Cliff Island ferry landing. In exchange, the city would receive a 10-acre parcel off County Way, known as the Northern Wye property, and a Park and Ride lot on Marginal Way, in addition to the rail corridor.

Greg Mitchell, who stepped down as the city’s economic development director earlier this month but has been retained as a consultant for the rest of the year, said the city has no development plans for the County Way site, which in the past has been eyed for a new homeless shelter and a new public safety facility. The city will have six months to conduct due diligence to ensure the site is developable before closing, he said.

“We feel this is a valuable asset the city should acquire to influence the direction of development,” Mitchell said. 

The city is looking to continue to use the Park and Ride lot for transportation uses, though councilors urged Mitchell to also investigate whether the city could maintain ground-level parking on the lot and build housing above it, or eliminate the parking and develop the lot.

Mitchell said no money will change hands in the land swap because officials believe both sides are getting equal value.

The city currently leases the marine terminal to the state for $145,000 a year and the Maine Port Authority oversees cargo shipping activities. The city Planning Board last fall approved plans to build a new cold storage facility on property just west of that site to meet the refrigerated cargo demands of Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, and to accommodate customers from Maine’s growing food, beverage and biopharmaceutical industries.

Mitchell said there were 20 years left on the lease, which translates to $2.9 million in lost revenue. But, he said, the city will save on expensive maintenance costs for the Cliff Island ferry terminal by turning it over to the state, which already owns most ferry terminals.

“This will be a significant savings to the city going forward,” he said.

According to a 2018 memo from the Maine Department of Transportation, the land the city is getting was valued at $2.2 million, based on purchase prices in 2001 and 2002. The land the state is receiving was valued at nearly $3.9 million, which includes the $1.6 million in trail improvements.

Mitchell said the state has agreed to build a 12-foot wide asphalt trail, and to install underground conduit, wiring and light fixtures for the trail.

The path would run behind Deering Oaks, Fitzpatrick Stadium and Hadlock Field, and include the train trestle over Park Avenue.

“This exchange will complete an important link in the circum-peninsula loop that has become a major amenity for residents and visitors alike,” Zack Barowitz, chairman of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said in a letter to the council.

A City Hall spokesperson said Monday that the city is still designing a bike-pedestrian trail for West Commercial Street, which, along with the existing Eastern Promenade and Bayside Trails, would mostly complete the loop. That leg could take five years to finish.

Meanwhile, Mitchell said, if in the next six months the city discovers any significant environmental issues with any of the parcels it is receiving, it could either renegotiate with the state or back out of the deal.

City Councilor Tae Chong said he supported the land exchange because it gives the city control over the 10-acre County Way site, a significant undeveloped parcel, and moves forward a long awaited trail project while helping the state create good paying maritime jobs in the city.

“For all those reasons, it just makes really good fiscal sense and it gives us more opportunities to figure out how we’re going to grow our city,” Chong said. 

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