NORTH YARMOUTH — From the back of the industrial buildings along Presumpscot Street in Portland to Yarmouth’s parks to the woods of North Yarmouth and New Gloucester, Dick Woodbury stopped at several railroad crossings and dreamed.

Two years ago he and fellow bike enthusiast Sue Ellen Bordwell helped found the Casco Bay Trail Alliance to advocate for Maine’s next important rail trail pathway. It would run just a few blocks from Portland’s Back Cove on the dormant, state-owned St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail line to New Gloucester, just shy of Auburn.

“Rail trails bridge so many areas of public policy: public health, connecting communities, helping the environment, tourism,” Woodbury said. “I first got interested in trails living near Boston when I commuted by bike from Newton to Cambridge along the Charles River trail in the ’90s. I just loved having exercise built into my day and not being in traffic. I loved helping the environment.”

In June, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a measure that allows communities to petition the Maine Department of Transportation to study the viability of developing trails on state-owned rail lines. Maine DOT owns some of the inactive rail lines in the state, but not all.

The Casco Bay Trail Alliance is one such group working on the petition process in order to build a 24-mile rail trail from Portland to New Gloucester, and it believes there is significant support for the project.

The town councils in Yarmouth, Falmouth and Freeport all have passed resolutions to support the concept, even though the tracks do not run through Freeport. Woodbury said at least one large business along the corridor wants to help fund the project. 

And in Maine, as well as around the country, use of trails has spiked during the pandemic, said Eastern Trail Alliance Executive Director Jon Kachmar.

“I’m confident saying it has increased 300 percent. Our parking lots were definitely three times as busy. There is no doubt – 700,000 to 800,000 people have used the trail over the last year,” Kachmar said of the Eastern Trail, the rail trail that runs almost continuously from South Portland to Kennebunk. 

Casco Bay Trail Alliance co-founder Dick Woodbury stands along tracks near a crossing in the Riverfront Woods Preserve in Yarmouth, where he hopes the 25-mile Casco Bay Rail Trail one day will be built. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine has 34 rail trails totaling 399 miles, according to the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. But Maine has lagged behind some other states in the Northeast in recent years when it comes to rail trail construction, which is an expensive process.

“In the last 15 years, Pennsylvania has completed the granddaddy of rail trails – that connects from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh – 333 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal. A lot of it was volunteer inspired and implemented,” said Tom Sexton, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Northeast regional director.

Sexton said New York gets the prize for the immediate call-to-action in constructing rail trails. Four years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged $200 million to fund and finish the Empire State Trail that connects Manhattan to Canada and Albany to Buffalo, and the state’s legislature approved funding the project. Of the proposed 750-mile corridor, 75 percent was completed after 180 miles of new off-road trail was built.

“Pennsylvania is one of the leading rail trail states in the U.S. but now we’re seeing New York and Massachusetts really upping their game,” Sexton said.

The Casco Bay Trail would include this bridge over the Royal River in Yarmouth, if the Casco Bay Trail Alliance is successful in raising a groundswell of support for the proposed rail-trail. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In New England a similar long-distance rail-trail vision began two years ago when Sexton met with trail representatives from each of the six states and asked for their “spine trail,” a rail trail that would cut across the biggest section of each state and also stood the greatest chance of being completed. The vision was to connect all six spine trails. 

As a result, Massachusetts is moving toward finishing 53 miles of its 104-mile spine trail from Connecticut to Boston. Vermont has completed 33 of the 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, with approval from the state legislature to fund the remaining 60 miles by 2023. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, which has completed 74 miles of its 115-mile Granite State spine trail, is working on a 17-mile rail trail along the seacoast that would connect to the 70-mile Border to Boston rail trail that runs north of Boston and is about half done. The first 10 miles of New Hampshire’s Seacoast Greenway is also scheduled for construction in 2023.

“The notion of one day being able to bike from Yarmouth village down to Portland and on to Boston, that would be amazing,” Woodbury said.

Maine has 125 miles of its roughly 336-mile spine trail completed, according to the Conservancy, with 22 of the 65-mile Eastern Trail done and the entire 87-mile Downeast Sunrise Trail completed. So huge gaps remain between Kittery and Calais. 

Sexton said the new Maine law focusing on rail-trail development is a start. And he believes the Casco Bay Trail – while not on Maine’s “spine trail” – would focus attention on the need for rail trails in the state because it’s in the heart of its most populated area.

However, Kachmar and rail-trail advocates elsewhere said building them is not simple or quick, and definitely not cheap. 

Kachmar said Maine DOT estimates put the cost of pedestrian-bicycle trail construction at $1 million to $1.5 million per mile, although it can run higher depending on the landscape. For example, the Eastern Trail’s section over the Nonesuch River and an active rail line that is expected to be built in 2022 will cost an estimated $5.9 million for a 1.6-mile stretch, Kachmar said.

Funding typically comes from a variety of sources, said Craig Della Penna of the Mass Central Rail Trail Coalition. Della Penna said in Massachusetts it is typically a patchwork of funding sources, from state and local governments to federal money and donations from foundations and businesses. And every trail is funded differently, Della Penna noted.

In Maine, where $11 million has been spent to date on the Eastern Trail, state transportation money for rail trails and funds raised by local communities typically has been an 80-20 split, Kachmar said. Federal funding for trails usually requires a 20 percent match.

Money allocated by the Maine Department of Transportation for rail trail construction usually comes from federal transportation funds earmarked for trails and safe pedestrian/bicycle pathways and crossings. Nate Moulton, a veteran with the department, noted those federal funds can’t all go to rail trails. Generally, most funds from Maine DOT originate from the Federal Highway Administration and the Maine agency allocates those funds to local projects.

Moulton noted that for some acclaimed rail trail projects, such as Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage, philanthropic donations were key.

“We welcome public-private partnerships,” Moulton said. “Even after a rail trail is built, it needs to be maintained. The town or someone has got to go out and plow the trails. If someone says the state will build the whole thing and maintain it – I’m guessing it will take longer than if the town got a bunch of private money and said we will maintain it.”


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