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Trestle tussle in Portland sinks federal grant effort for trails

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Trestle tussle in Portland sinks federal grant effort for trails

PORTLAND — Competing visions for the future of the railroad bridge at the mouth of Back Cove have sunk a regional effort to secure more than $1 million in federal grants for bridge and trail projects in greater Portland.

Several municipalities and trail groups, including Portland Trails and the South Portland Land Trust, were seeking federal grants for the second round of the $600 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.

The group's application was being processed by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, which allocates federal and state transit funds.

The planning grants would have been used to advance projects like a bike and pedestrian overpass on the new Veterans Memorial Bridge between Portland and South Portland ($100,000), a bike-pedestrian bridge over Long Creek ($300,000) and the Eastern Trail in Scarborough ($300,000).

But it was a proposal by Portland Trails to convert the Back Cove bridge into a paved walking and biking trail ($750,000) that prompted rail advocates to derail the process.

The swing bridge is a movable trail trestle along the old St. Lawrence & Atlantic rail line. It's built to allow boats to cross the rail line that runs behind the B&M Baked Beans factory.

Tony Donovan, a Portland member of the fledgling Maine Rail Transit Coalition, is one of the local rail advocates who opposed the proposal.

Donovan said he and members of the Sierra Club opposed the plan because they want the bridge preserved for future light rail use, other than the Amtrak Downeaster.

"This is not about Amtrak," Donovan said. "That bridge is for rail. We have already lost too many rail corridors."

Donovan pointed to the new Bayside trail as a local example of rail becoming asphalt. There, the city removed the former Union Branch line to make way for a paved walking trail.

After opponents testified against the application at an Aug. 3 meeting, PACTS Director John Duncan said the trails and rails groups were directed to meet and reach a compromise. But the funding deadline came and went without a new proposal.

"I was really disappointed this didn't come together," Duncan said. "It was a regional effort that a lot of folks put a lot of time into."

Both Duncan and Donovan believe the application was stymied by the city's decision to not first vet the proposal through the City Council's Transportation Committee.

However, Donovan, who sent a letter in opposition to the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he is disappointed that PACTS will not make a commitment to rail, but will instead focus on collector roads and trails.

He contends that his group's vision for the bridge is more in line with the priorities of the Obama Administration and the TIGER Program.

"We have something really good here," Donovan said. "We're following the steps Obama has outlined for ridding our dependence on foreign oil."

Duncan, meanwhile, said he hopes to be able to tap into other funding sources for the projects in the original application.

"We hope (Portland Trails) will continue to work on this," Duncan said. "I think there will be other funding opportunities."

Nan Cumming, executive director of Portland Trails, which would have provided $150,000 of the required local match of $250,000, could not be reached.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.