Whether it’s trains or trails, many in central Maine want a now unused state-owned rail corridor, which for long stretches follows the Kennebec River between Augusta and Brunswick, to be put back into use.
It’s a costly proposition, but one that could drive economic development for communities along the way, whether it involves train riders, trail users or both.
Some advocates for preserving the corridor for the restoration of train service continue to express concerns that, once the rail corridor known as the Lower Road is converted to use as a recreational trail, trains will never come back.
Advocates for converting it into a trail, meanwhile, argue doing so will have a far greater impact on the economic, and physical, health of the communities along the corridor than an active rail line would, and that it may be able to accommodate both rails and trails.
But many participants in a recent Zoom discussion of a proposal to study making changes to the corridor said they just want to see either proposal move forward so the scenic, valuable asset can be used, not just sit unused as most of it has for decades.
“We’d like to see the Lower Road utilized more intensely, in some way, either way, restoration of rail or implementation of the Merrymeeting Trail project,” Keith Luke, the city of Augusta’s economic development director, said during the first meeting of the Lower Road Rail Use Advisory Council Wednesday. “Do something. This ongoing status quo is not utilizing the corridor to its fullest in any context. I think we’re the strongest advocates here for doing something, one way or the other.”
Under state rules, the Rail Use Advisory Council, formed after municipal officials along the corridor wrote to the state Department of Transportation to request the potential for the 34-mile corridor to be used as a recreational trail be studied, has nine months to, assisted by consultants, study the issue and make recommendations to the MDOT for consideration for potential legislation.
The study will consider three usage options, according to Nate Howard, rail director for MDOT: Continue to preserve the corridor for rail-use only; convert it to a rail with trail, similar to the existing Kennebec River Rail Trail with a new trail to be built next to the existing rails; and what Howard called an “interim trail option” in which the rails could be removed and replaced with a trail, with the understanding the ability to return the corridor to rail use would be preserved in case trains were to be brought back.
Howard said the state acquired the corridor with federal railroad funds so the state must preserve the corridor for rail use, no matter what, if any, scenario to use it as a trail is contemplated.
The corridor already includes the Kennebec River Rail Trail between Augusta and Gardiner, which follows next to the tracks. The tracks remain in place, but are not currently being used by any trains. A portion of them are paved over in an Augusta parking lot, though Luke noted the city agreed to uncover and restore the tracks for rail use if an operator expresses interest in trains using that part of the line.
The study would include cost estimates for each option.
Estimates from 2015 put the cost of building the proposed Merrymeeting Trail on the corridor between Gardiner and Topsham alongside the existing rails at around $50 million.
Participants in the rail use council meeting said the corridor being put back into use, via trails or rails, could help the local economy.
“We’re primarily interested in seeing us move off the dime on this stranded asset,” Gay Grant, of Gardiner, said. “We need to draw new people to our communities and the quality of life, and active transportation opportunities, are key pieces to bring people to our communities. We’re interested in what’s the best economic driver for our communities, if that’s rail service then show me the numbers. If it’s trails, I think there already are numbers to indicate the benefits of that.”
Richard Rudolph, chairman of Rail Users Network and a board member of Maine Rail Group, said the state should fund a feasibility study for returning rail, from Brunswick to Bangor. He said due to climate change people are looking for options other than driving in their cars, and trains could fill that role.
The group is expected to meet monthly, but will not meet in December.