The Casco Bay Trail is a proposed off-road, multi-use trail running in a 72-mile loop between Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Brunswick. It is a key part of a statewide plan to connect over two-thirds of Maine’s population to active transportation networks.

The tracks of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad near a trail crossing in the Riverfront Woods Preserve in Yarmouth could become a a key part of a statewide plan to connect over two-thirds of Maine’s population to active transportation networks. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Casco Bay Trail is facing an important test, with a Department of Transportation advisory council considering the best use of the 26-mile disused St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail corridor between Portland and Auburn. The best use – and, currently, only realistic use – for this state-owned land is a multi-use trail, opening it up for both commuting and recreation. This would reduce traffic into Portland, particularly during the tourist-heavy spring, summer and fall. Additionally, this proposed trail would expand opportunities for people to safely enjoy the outdoors with family and friends, with all the resulting benefits for physical and mental health.

Using the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail corridor as a trail is completely consistent with a vision for passenger rail between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. Indeed, the parallel and active CSX rail corridor connects Portland and Lewiston, and is already used by Amtrak for service to Brunswick. This CSX line could accommodate expanded service to Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, Bangor and – using another active line – Montreal.

Yet, one rail advocacy group, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, has instead argued for using the disused St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail line for a passenger rail route that would pass through the Eastern Prom and terminate in a new “Ocean Gateway” station in downtown Portland. This proposal does not survive basic scrutiny, not least because of its proposed incursion into the treasured Eastern Prom park. Experts evaluating the coalition’s proposed Ocean Gateway route have soundly rejected it on account of cost, logistics and feasibility.

A 2019 feasibility study by rail experts reviewed all possible passenger rail routes from Portland to Lewiston and recommended eliminating “options that require the Ocean Gateway station.” Among other problems, riders arriving at Ocean Gateway would still need to travel across Portland to the existing train station to finish a journey to Boston. Plus, adding a new Ocean Gateway station and rebuilding a train-bearing bridge over Back Bay would add millions to an already-expensive project. Although the coalition now proposes a purportedly cheaper light rail option, the 2019 study found that “light rail is not considered an appropriate technology for the corridors being considered.”

Most recently, in 2021, the Legislature approved another feasibility study of Portland-to-Lewiston routes, but again eliminated further study of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail route to Ocean Gateway.


That leaves the route available for a trail.

The vision is bright for a future with a regional off-road trail. The challenges of the last several years have only strengthened people’s love for the outdoors. Rail trail projects are the perfect way to get people outside – regardless of their background, age or ability – and provide critical infrastructure for environmental stability, public health and economic vibrancy.

When it comes to the environment, most trips are taken by car even though more than half of trips are within a 20-minute bike ride. A lack of safe and accessible space for walking and biking is often to blame. Safe active transportation networks, including rail trails, would create opportunities to choose walking and biking over driving.

Then there are the economic upsides to regional off-road trails – both individually and for the community as a whole. It goes without saying that walking and biking saves money on gas and car maintenance. Plus, rail trails like the Eastern Trail show dramatic economic benefits for the communities in which they’re located.

The Casco Bay Trail would go a long way to achieving the goals of the statewide active transportation vision – enabling emission-free transportation, outdoor recreation and improved public health. It would connect people to existing public space, such as Back Cove, the proposed Roux Campus and the Eastern Prom. And it would bring together communities across the region to make us stronger, healthier and happier.

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