YARMOUTH — An effort to improve bicycle and walking paths in the region covered familiar ground during a third and final meeting Tuesday.
The meeting also revealed continuing enthusiasm for a possible rails-with-trails link between Portland and Auburn.
About 30 people braved a winter storm to attend the planning workshop, which included draft proposals for short- and long-term projects in Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth. The proposed projects range anywhere from improved signage and paint marking on existing roadways, to a feasibility study for the 24-mile railside trail.
The workshop was conducted by Mike Lydon, principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning and design company with offices in Miami, Fla., and New York City. Lydon provided the audience with copies of two maps showing areas of potential short- and long-term projects.
In the short-term, Lydon proposed that Yarmouth and North Yarmouth work together to install signs and bicycle parking along Sligo Road and Yarmouth’s Main Street, which form a well-used conduit for area cyclists. Conspicuous signs and bicycle racks would raise awareness among vehicle drivers in the region, he said, a common theme throughout the workshops.
Lydon also suggested painting street markings, called sharrows, in downtown Freeport; installing bike path signs and markings along the new pathways planned for the improvement project along U.S. Route 1 in Falmouth; and adding shoulders to a one-mile stretch of Winn Road in Cumberland to bridge a gap between existing shoulders to the north and south.
In the long-term, Lydon proposed Yarmouth add shoulders to Route 88. The scenic road, which is popular with cyclists, already has wide shoulders throughout Falmouth and Cumberland, but those shoulders abruptly end at the Yarmouth town line.
Lydon also proposed changes to the Interstate 295 overpass south of downtown Freeport to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as they cross the highway toward the town’s ball fields; adding shoulders to Blackstrap Road and Route 9 in Falmouth and North Yarmouth, respectively; extending the Beth Condon Pathway from Yarmouth to Freeport; and constructing a tunnel beneath the railroad tracks near Falmouth schools to connect vast networks of trails on the eastern and western sides of town.
The long-term proposal that drew the most attention from the audience, however, was Lydon’s idea for a rails-with-trails project along a soon-to-be abandoned stretch of railway between Auburn and Portland that traverses four of the five towns that are involved in the planning project: Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth and North Yarmouth.
The 24-mile Auburn-to-Portland rail corridor, which is owned by the state, is operated by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad Co. In November, the Montreal-based company filed paperwork with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to discontinue service to its only customer on that line, B&M Baked Beans in Portland.
Carl Eppich, a planner with the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS, said there are areas along the corridor that, at a glance, appear too narrow to support a contiguous rails-with-trails path, but it’s too soon to say whether that’s truly the case.
Instead, a feasibility study that includes surveys of the state’s right of way could determine areas that are wide enough to support a path from areas where the path would need to be diverted.
If the idea ever comes to fruition, a rails-with-trails path between Maine’s two most-populous urban centers would be a “showpiece for the region, if not the whole Northeast,” Eppich said.
“It’s worth looking at the opportunity; looking at the feasibility of any portion of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic (Railroad) for rail with trail,” he said.
Jim Tasse, education director for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said the idea of a path running alongside the railroad tracks has merit, especially if the corridor is eventually opened to commuter trains. Both would support bicycle transportation, because bicycle commuters can ride to train stations, carry their bicycles aboard, then continue cycling at the end of the line, he said.
“I’m a huge proponent of rail with trail, but we’ll see what comes of it,” Tasse said. “This one might have some legs. It would be a win-win for everybody.”
Many of Lydon’s smaller-scale proposals also resonated with Tasse.
“I find it all exciting,” he said. “I’m really happy that the conversation about walking, biking and connectivity is occurring.”
Lydon’s draft proposal doesn’t guarantee any work will take place. Officials in the five communities will ultimately decide next year after Lydon submits a final version of the proposal to PACTS. The group hired Lydon for the $10,000 planning project, which was paid through a mix of federal and local sources.
Any construction projects that result from the meetings won’t begin right away. Construction grant applications are due to PACTS in February, but approved projects won’t begin until spring 2016. Planning grants, like a feasibility study, wouldn’t be reviewed by PACTS until winter 2015, Eppich said.
PACTS generally sets aside about $600,000 per year to fund bike-and-pedestrian projects.