YARMOUTH — The planner behind a five-town effort to improve bicycle and walking trails in the region is eyeing a 24-mile strip of railway as a potential rails-with-trails corridor.
The announcement came Monday during a presentation at Yarmouth Town Hall 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 had been in the area for a week of cycling tours and round-table discussions in Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth, in an effort to take stock of the region’s paths and to identify roadways that could be improved to connect communities.
The planning broadened in potential scope when Lydon learned that freight train service between Auburn and Portland could be ending.
The 24-mile rail corridor, which is owned by the state, extends between Auburn and Portland and is operated by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad Co. On Nov. 8, the Montreal-based company filed paperwork with the federal Surface Transportation Board to discontinue service to its only customer on that line, B&M Baked Beans in Portland.
The rail line traverses four of the five towns that are involved in the planning project: Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth and North Yarmouth. Eventually, Freeport could be included in the network through a spur trail that branches off from Yarmouth and runs alongside the Pan Am Railways line used by Amtrak’s Downeaster, Lydon said.
“This is a real opportunity,” he said. “Dozens of these (trail systems) have been built across the country, so it can be done, with some political will.”
Lydon stressed that the proposal would be a rails-with-trails system, rather than a rails-to-trails system, meaning the trail would run alongside the existing railway, which rail advocates are hoping to see used for a commuter-train connection between Portland and Auburn.
“That’s a really key corridor that I believe should be protected for rail, but that shouldn’t preclude a trail from being built as well,” Lydon said.
Lydon acknowledged his proposal is a large-scale, 20- or 30-year project for the region, but it could be implemented in small segments by individual towns. As an example, Lydon cited a one-mile stretch of railway in downtown Yarmouth as a starting point. That location is already frequently used by pedestrians, particularly high school students, he said.
“It’s something that could be built as the very first phase to prove out the concept,” he said.
Lydon’s presentation included a range of ideas, big and small. Some were better road painting for cyclists, particularly at interchanges between U.S. Route 1 and Interstate 295, and better signage.
Other potential projects included constructing shoulders along roads to connect with existing paved shoulders, like Route 88 through Yarmouth, to connect with shoulders that exist in Cumberland and Falmouth, or Route 9 in North Yarmouth to connect with shoulders in Pownal.
Lydon also suggested building a bike-and-pedestrian bridge in Falmouth to span the railroad corridor near the Falmouth schools. A bridge at that location would connect vast trail systems on both sides of town, he said.
Lydon said his plans may change entirely or may be further refined when he presents his final draft proposal at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10, at the Log Cabin in Yarmouth.
Paul Niehoff, senior transportation planner for Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS), said the rails-with-trails concept has merit.
Niehoff, who attended the meeting with two other PACTS executives, said rails-with-trails systems are generally set apart from the rail bed with fencing and are generally safer than riding alongside vehicle traffic on roadways. There have “only been one or two fatalities” associated with rails-with-trails systems nationwide, he said.
Railroad companies can be difficult to work with, Niehoff said, but a project of this sort could be easier because the state owns the corridor.
The project, if pursued, would have a fair shot at grant money, because it would be a collaborative project, Niehoff said.
“If we have one or two towns that collectively come to us for study money or infrastructure money, then we actually rank that differently, or as a higher priority,” Niehoff said.
PACTS – a federally mandated planning organization with 18 member towns in the Portland region – generally sets aside about $600,000 per year to fund bike-and-pedestrian projects.
Any projects that result from the meetings won’t begin right away, Niehoff added. Grant applications are due in February, but approved projects won’t begin until spring 2016.
About 30 people attended the Monday meeting, which was the second in a series of three that began Nov. 12, with a day-long tour of Falmouth’s paths, followed by a meeting at Falmouth Town Hall.
The $10,000 planning project was paid for with a mix of federal grant money and local contributions. PACTS contributed $8,000 to the planning project. The five towns chipped in $400 each for a 20 percent match.
The planning project scored highest of the 22 grant applications PACTS received this year, because it fostered collaboration between so many member towns – the most of any project to date, said Carl Eppich, another PACTS planner.
The draft proposal that Lydon will submit on December doesn’t guarantee any work will take place. Although the meeting attendees have overwhelmingly favored infrastructure projects, it’s impossible to know whether officials in the five communities will ultimately support it, he said.
“You’re going to have challenges in each of the towns, no doubt,” Lydon said. “We’re expecting that. Once we get an actual proposal done and out there for the public, we want that to be vetted by the naysayers and (supporters) and hopefully create a dialogue.”
Lydon cited the East Coast Greenway – an in-progress path from Key West, Fla., to Calais – as a signal that large-scale bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects are possible.
“If there’s the interest and the ability to do it on that scale, you can certainly connect five towns in southern Maine,” he said.
Ed Ashley, a member of Yarmouth’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Committee, attended both of Lydon’s workshops, plus local meetings in Freeport and Yarmouth.
“The time is right to have this kind of conversation, whereas maybe we weren’t 10 years ago,” he said. “We’re very hopeful for the future after these positive first steps.”