Study: Portland-Yarmouth rail trail possible, but expensive

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PORTLAND — Construction of a 10-mile multi-use trail on a former rail bed between Portland and Yarmouth is not only feasible, according to a study, but desirable – particularly because of connections that could be made to other trail systems in the region.

But while a trail along the former St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad is technically possible, it would also be expensive, with an estimated cost of about $23 million, according to the preliminary study by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

The cost is related to the need for several bridge and roadway crossings.

In its report, which was released last week and prepared in cooperation with Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth, the council said it would make sense for trail construction to be done in phases, starting with a 1.7-mile stretch in Yarmouth that doesn’t include any physical barriers.

The cost for that section of the trail is estimated to be about $2.2 million, according to Kristina Egan, executive director of the council, who authored the report.

Based on Egan’s analysis, the 3.8-mile Falmouth section of the trail, , would be the most expensive – about $10.7 million – because it has the most crossings.

The 1.7-mile Portland stretch would cost nearly $6 million, according to Egan, and the Cumberland section, which is 2.7 miles, would be $3.8 million.

In all, she said, the railroad tracks in the study area cross five bridges, six large culverts and nine roads.

The railroad line between Portland and Yarmouth has been discontinued, although the Maine Department of Transportation owns a rail right-of-way and freight operator Genesee & Wyoming holds an operator easement for that section.

If rail service were to resume, the trains would be limited to a top speed of 25 miles per hour, Egan said.

Walking or biking on the railroad right-of-way is currently prohibited and Egan said the four communities that want to build the rail trail would need permission from MDOT.

What makes the proposal so attractive, according to Egan, is “the potential trail along the St. Lawrence & Atlantic could connect to other trails in the region, and would also become part of the regional transportation network.”

“In Yarmouth for example, the Beth Condon Trail and the Park and Ride are logical connections,” her report said.

In Falmouth, “the town identified exploration of a potential trail along this very corridor in (its) 2016 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan,” the report continued. “If the trail were constructed, it would also connect to other future improvements identified in the plan.”

In addition, Egan said, “other communities (in the study area) also have adjacent trails or plans for future trails, including along Veranda Street” in Portland.

At an exploratory meeting, which was held in mid-December in Falmouth, Egan said “several attendees voiced support for the potential trail and the connections that could follow.”

In particular, there was a lot of interest in connecting the rail trail to Back Cove and the Eastern Promenade in Portland.

Egan said the council spent about five months reviewing the potential for the rail trail.

“Our purpose was to investigate how feasible it would be to add a trail to the existing railway right-of-way” in a way that would “preserve the potential for future restoration of freight and/or passenger rail service.”

She said the December meeting was well-attended and there was “a high level of community support for adding a trail to the rail corridor.”

“Residents supported (this) trail because it would give people an option to avoid driving and traffic, bike safely, and to commute in a climate-friendly way,” Egan said in the report. “Others cited the benefits of improved quality of life, public health, economic development, and increased property values.”

She said the next step is for the communities along the proposed route to commit to a more detailed feasibility study, which would address the “physical constraints … such as crossing the Presumpscot River, going under the Falmouth Spur, and widening existing embankments.”

Egan said trails have been built next to active rail lines in other places around the country. The most important lesson learned, she said, is that it’s “critical to carefully design (the) trail so as to not degrade existing rail service or the potential for restoring rail service.”

In addition, she said, the Maine Department of Transportation has several minimum standards for the development of a trail next to a railroad, including a required setback of 15 feet, she said.

The former St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad track was most recently used to transport raw materials to the B&M baked bean factory in Portland, but that freight service ended in late 2015, according to Egan.

In creating the preliminary report on the rail trail, Egan said the council of governments conducted interviews with key stakeholders; toured the rail line to develop a working understanding of the geography, constraints and opportunities; evaluated alternative trail segments that could reduce costs, and gathered input from residents.

Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth’s director of long-range planning and economic development, said there seemed to be strong overall support for continuing to explore the possibility.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The former St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad line, which is being considred for a rail trail, includes several bridge and roadway crossings, including this one over the Presumpscot River between Portland and Falmouth.

The route of a proposed 10-mile rail trail along the former St. Lawrence and Atlantic railroad. The trail, which would run from Portland to Yarmouth, could cost as much as $23 million to build.