Maine Voices: Casco Bay Trail faces a significant test. Let’s hope it passes.

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

St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad tracks near a level crossing in the Riverfront Woods reservation in Yarmouth could become a key part of a statewide plan to connect more than two-thirds of the population from Maine to active transportation networks. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

The Casco Bay Trail faces a significant test, with a Department of Transportation advisory board considering the best use of the 26-mile disused St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail corridor between Portland and Auburn. The best use – and, currently, the only realistic use – of this state-owned land is as a multi-use trail, opening it up for both travel and recreation. This would reduce traffic to Portland, especially during the very touristy 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 physical and mental health benefits.

The use of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail corridor as a trail is entirely consistent with a vision of 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 to serve Brunswick. This CSX line could accommodate expanded service to Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, Bangor and – using another active line – Montreal.

Yet a railroad advocacy group, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, instead argued in favor of using the disused St. Lawrence and Atlantic Rail line for a passenger rail route that would cross the Eastern Prom and would end with a new “Ocean Gateway” station in downtown Portland. This proposal does not survive basic scrutiny, not least because of its proposed foray into the treasured Eastern Prom Park. Experts evaluating the coalition’s proposed Ocean Gateway route strongly rejected it on the grounds of cost, logistics and feasibility.

A Feasibility study 2019 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 issues, passengers arriving at Ocean Gateway would still have to travel through Portland to the existing station to complete their trip to Boston. Additionally, adding a new Ocean Gateway station and rebuilding a rail bridge over Back Bay would add millions to an already expensive project. Although the coalition now offers a supposedly cheaper light rail option, the 2019 study found that “light rail is not considered an appropriate technology for the corridors being considered”.

More recently, in 2021, the Legislative Assembly approved another feasibility study of the Portland-Lewiston routes, but again ruled out further study of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail route to Ocean Gateway.

This leaves the route available for a trail.

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

As far as the environment is concerned, most journeys are made by car even if more than half of journeys are made within 20 minutes by bicycle. The lack of safe and accessible spaces for walking and cycling is often to blame. Safe active transportation networks, including railwayswould create opportunities to choose walking and cycling over the car.

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

The Casco Bay Trail would go a long way toward achieving the goals of the statewide active transportation vision – enabling emissions-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 communities across the region together to make us stronger, healthier and happier.


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