Key state panel urges new rail trail between Auburn and Portland
Jan. 30 – The state’s Portland to Auburn Rail Use Advisory Board agreed this month to support the creation of a bicycle and pedestrian route along a 26.5-mile, state-owned rail corridor between the two cities.
Seven of the 15 members of the panel recommended removing the tracks to create the trail, while five others supported leaving the tracks in place for possible future use and adding a trail alongside them.
It is a decision applauded by some and condemned by others.
The Maine Rail Transit Coalition said the vote to tear up the tracks for a paved recreational trail “will go down in disgrace.”
But the Casco Bay Trail Alliance, which pushed for the outcome, called it a “very important development in the progress toward an off-road trail connecting Portland, Lewiston and Brunswick.”
Before anything can be done to move forward with the proposed route along the inactive railroad, the transportation commissioner must get legislative approval.
Creating a paved trail along the corridor is likely to cost more than $55 million, officials estimate. Leaving the tracks in place and adding a trail would add another $40 million to the price tag. Either way, federal money will likely cover much of the tab.
Overall, the state is pursuing more rail routes, perhaps one between Lewiston and Brunswick that could eventually join the route in Auburn, creating a corridor that would run from Portland to the Twin Cities and on to Brunswick for a long loop.
As it is, the unused St. Lawrence and Atlantic track little goal.
The council made its decision to endorse the route last week after hearing from more than 700 people about the best use for the Berlin Subdivision portion of the line that runs from Portland to the Auburn/New Gloucester town line. It issued a draft report after the vote.
It considered whether to leave the largely unused lanes next to them by adding a trail alongside them or take out the lanes to create a trail-only corridor as long as a marathon.
A large majority of those who spoke on the issue urged it to focus on creating a route.
Only one member of the committee was in favor of the railway option. As two members abstained, the route-only option received a narrow majority.
The rail panel report said its recreational use would “encourage more active lifestyles,” help property values along the corridor and spur consumer activity of as much as $5.3 million in additional annual spending.
The section that is looking for a route has been used for years by the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad owns and operates but has been out of service for over a decade. The state has owned it since 2010.
Only one short section is used for any rail operations.
The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum offers seasonal tourist excursions along a short section of the corridor from Ocean Gateway in Portland to a location south of the swing bridge along the Eastern Promenade. An existing trail runs alongside the tracks along the same corridor used by the museum.
The recommendation to take out the tracks and create a multi-use route on the former rail bed is inherently an interim proposal because state law mandates that rail corridors be preserved for possible future rail use. In short, even if it becomes a trail, it could be converted to rail in the future, although few think that is likely.
There is another railroad connecting Auburn with Portland that is still used for freight trains. Possible passenger service in the future is also being looked at.