An unused set of railroad tracks, background, veers from the mainline, foreground, into the woods at Danville Junction in Auburn. The former may become part of the proposed rail-to-trail project connecting Auburn to Portland with a 68-mile corridor for biking and walking. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN – There is “growing momentum” in the area to create a rail trail that would extend along an unused section of track that stretches from Auburn to Portland.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said this week that he expects many people “will love to hike and bike and walk” along the corridor.

The unused rail line stretching from Danville Junction in Auburn to Portland’s East End is state-owned. The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad’s lease to the line expires this year, former Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, president of the Lewiston and Auburn Railroad Co., said in an Aug. 12 memorandum.

That leaves officials with the option to do something with the property.

Map shows existing and proposed rail trail projects in Maine. Casco Bay Trail Alliance

Since there is another rail line between the two cities that is actively used, and could be tapped for passenger rail, there is considerable support for adding the corridor to a growing number of rail trails.

Levesque said it could become a key piece of a planned greenbelt program between Key West, Florida, and Eastport, Maine.

The City Council is likely to consider the idea at its Sept. 7 meeting, officials said, with an endorsement likely.

The state is encouraging more rail trails, perhaps including one eyed between Lewiston and Brunswick that could eventually tie into the trail in Auburn, creating a corridor that would run from Portland to the Twin Cities and on to Brunswick.

As it is, the unused St. Lawrence and Atlantic track is serving little purpose.

Emma Bond of Portland told lawmakers in May that she lives beside its “rotting railroad ties and broken glass” and would love to see it converted to a multiuse trail.

“If only this land were properly cared for as part of a trail system,” Bond said, “it would be a fantastic community benefit. Not only would it provide a public space to exercise and enjoy, but it would link us to neighboring towns and allow for bike commuters throughout communities in Southern Maine.”

A new law signed by Gov. Janet Mills in June let municipalities ask the state to look at developing trails on state rail lines. Already, some town councils along or near the corridor have backed the project, including Yarmouth and Falmouth.

Maine has some trails already, including the 87-mile Downeast Sunrise Trail, and more in the works. But it’s a long way still from having a corridor running continuously from Kittery to the Canadian border.

The law says the state Department of Transportation should evaluate by 2023 the “reasonable potential uses of state-owned rail corridors over which there are no ongoing rail operations” or contracts to determine the foreseeability of their future use for rail and prospects for trail use.

Railroad tracks that veer right off the mainline into the woods at Danville Junction in Auburn may become part of the proposed rail-to-trail project connecting Auburn to Portland with a 68-mile corridor for biking and walking. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LaBonte said the Casco Bay Trail Alliance envisions a new trail connecting Danville Junction to the Riverwalk trail downtown. He said the city owns a right of way along Washington Street that would allow a trail for nearly the entire distance.

The trail alliance said it is pushing for “a 68-mile recreational trail system through the communities of Auburn, Brunswick, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Lewiston, Lisbon, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Portland, Pownal, Topsham and Yarmouth” that would hook into the East Coast Greenway.

Levesque said there are clear benefits to the idea, which he thinks is “gaining momentum” as it is reviewed more carefully.

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