Friday, August 11, 2023

State approves funding to complete final segment of Rail Trail project

By Kaysa Jalbert

The final pieces of the puzzle are coming together in the creation of a recreational rail trail from Portland to Fryeburg including a five-mile section passing through Windham, Gorham and Standish that has been underway for the past year.

A completed five-mile section of the Mountain Division 
Trail in Windham is the most used trail west of Portland 
because it is accessible to everyone and features a gentle
grade, wide trail width and is paved. Maine has now 
approved funding to extend the trail to run all the way from
Portland to Fryeburg along old railroad tracks and work
on a new five-mile segment through Windham is
expected to start soon. COURTESY PHOTO  
According to Doug Smith of Windham, vice president of the Mountain Trail Alliance, once completed this section of rail trail will run from Route 202 in Windham to Westbrook and is part of several Active Transportation projects and legislation sponsored for rail trails in other parts of the state. In July, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill authorizing the Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner to construct a multi-use “Trail Until Rail” from Standish to Fryeburg.

Smith said that this is the first of many such pieces of legislation for rail trails forthcoming in the next Legislative session and beyond.

“I am a long-time resident of Windham who bikes and walks the Mountain Division Rail Trail several times a week,” he said. “I joined the Mountain Trail Alliance organization to advocate for building out the rail trail from Portland to Fryeburg. “

Leading up to the drafting of the bill was an extensive, seven-month review of potential rail and non-rail uses for the Mountain Division rail corridor from Standish to Fryeburg. The 12-member Mountain Division Rail Use Advisory Council (RUAC) voted 11 to 1 to recommend conversion of 31 miles of the existing railroad track to an interim paved bicycle and pedestrian trail some 10-feet wide. The committee further recommended snowmobiles remain an allowable use, under annual agreement with Maine DOT, within the corridor.

Advocates for the new rail trail say that it is the least expensive method to expand recreational opportunities in Maine and will provide the most direct and lasting economic and health benefits for residents along the rail corridor.

Smith said that The Mountain Division Trail will spur economic growth and connect Maine communities with a safe, car-free, multi-use trail. The previously completed Eastern Trail, is arguably Maine’s most popular rail trail, and has spurred millions of dollars of economic impact, according to recent studies.

The rail trail will attract tourists, bolster local businesses, and provide a boost to the overall economy. The project will also create job opportunities, stimulate construction-related industries, and drive local investment, further strengthening the region's prosperity.

The passage of the bill and approval by the governor creates a pivotal moment and opportunity for the residents and towns along the western section of the Mountain Division Rail Corridor, said Paul Schumacher, the President of Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission.

“The confluence of this opportunity with availability of grants and other funds brings the reality of accelerated economic development in the form of new businesses, real estate development, health benefits, and tourism within our reach,” Schumacher said.

Once work on the section running to Fryeburg is finished, this Mountain Division Trail section in western Maine will be a continuous 40-mile, paved trail, running from Route 202 in South Windham to Fryeburg. Over time it will connect with trails from Portland to North Conway, New Hampshire.

“This is the culmination of 30 years of work by many individuals, organizations, municipalities, and legislators in our quest to make the Mountain Division Trail a reality,” said Dave Kinsman, President of the Mountain Division Alliance.

The completed five-mile local section, created just over 15 years ago, runs about halfway through Gorham and halfway through Windham. This is the most used trail west of Portland because it is accessible to all, with a gentle grade, wide trail width and paved. This path allows walkers, runners, bicyclists, wheelchairs, and strollers.

“This was the original vision of the Mountain Division Alliance when it was founded in 1994,” says Kinsman, “The Mountain Division Trail will be the best use of a much-underutilized public asset that has sat dormant for 40 years. It will bring joy and economic benefits to the towns of Western Maine.”

The next five miles east from Route 202 in Windham to East Bridge Street in Westbrook is in the planning phase. Funding provided by the Maine Department of Transportation, the Town of Windham, and the City of Westbrook has provided a year-long planning and design study. The study estimates the cost to build the trail with an initial trail design. Once built, the trail with be 10 miles long, wide, flat, and accessible to thousands of people within walking distance of the trail.

“This will be a major project for the state of Maine, Windham, and Westbrook to invest in - and will involve federal active transportation funds. The design and engineering will need to be completed in the next year, and then the fundraising and building will take several years,” said Rachelle Curran Apse, Executive Director of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust. “We plan for the trail to be complete in the next five to seven years.”

The Mountain Division Alliance is a Maine based non-profit organization formed in 1993. Its mission is to work with the nine communities along the Mountain Division Rail corridor, Maine Department of Transportation, and other organizations and stakeholders to create a safe, welcoming, contiguous trail to provide for active transportation and recreation opportunities from Fryeburg to Portland. Its Board is comprised of representatives from each of communities that the Mountain Division Rail corridor passes through. <

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