Finally, a spell of good weather beckons for Mainers after a very wet and muggy summer. Over the next seven or eight days – providing the forecast holds – we will flock to our state’s great parks, beaches, lakes, ponds, mountains, rivers and get out on its trails.

A runner heads south along the Kennebec River Rail Trail in Augusta in 2019. The trail runs from downtown Augusta through Hallowell and Farmingdale to Gardiner; a proposal calls for it to continue farther south to Brunswick. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

In recent years, and at a ferocious rate since the pandemic, outdoor recreation has increased sharply in popularity. The trend of getting out on foot, on wheels or, during the winter, on snowshoes and on skis contributes billions of dollars to Maine’s economy – in fact, we’re in the top five nationally for what the industry does for state GDP. More than that, it’s good for us and it’s good for our environment.

Maine has a further chance to capitalize on this rush, now, by creating an off-road multi-use trail along the disused train line known as the Lower Road corridor, connecting Brunswick, Topsham, Bowdoinham, Richmond and Gardiner. The trail-versus-rail debate, regarding these 30 or so miles, has been trundling along for some time. Lately, both public opinion and a recommendation of an advisory council has tipped further to trail; it’s an opinion this editorial board shares.

According to estimates by the Maine Department of Transportation, the establishment of new passenger rail service along this corridor would cost $363 million, with another $3 million each year for maintenance. The cost of building an interim trail, meanwhile, is put at about $34 million ($43 million if paved, which might be a proverbial extra mile worth advocating for), with an annual maintenance cost of $140,000.

“Interim,” in this instance, means removing the train tracks – which could be put to use elsewhere  – with the understanding that rail could be restored along the corridor at any time that becomes viable. Another option is to create a trail alongside the tracks, but at three times the expense, because of the need to widen and build up the route.

Critics of the plan to take up the tracks argue in favor of holding on to them so that the state can pivot back to rail without as much ado. This is where a realistic appreciation of viability and local train ridership comes in. As much as we would love for a vibrant and well-used passenger rail network connecting Maine’s towns and cities, it is clear by almost every available metric that we are a very long way from bringing about that vision.


Ultimately, yes, rail transit – done right – makes abundant sense. No matter what happens on the corridor, it can be restored for rail use. As it stands, however, the Department of Transportation has ruled out passenger rail along this particular corridor until 2040. A trail can be put to good use in those years.

More than just recreation, the trail carries potential for commuters.

“Have you ever walked or biked along the side of a road with a narrow shoulder and felt that clench of anxiety and racing heart when a truck careens past and almost hits you?” Emma Bond, a volunteer board member with the Casco Bay Trail Alliance, wrote in a June op-ed for the Press Herald. “Have you considered biking to work, but avoided it because of dangerous roads and lack of a bike lane along the way? I have, and I know I’m not alone.”

She’s not; at a public meeting in June, 70% of residents expressed their support for the trail, citing its benefits for community health. The Rail Corridor Use Advisory Council’s official recommendation for an interim trail is with the MaineDOT. Let’s hope it’s good news for walkers, bikers and hikers – and the state as a whole.

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