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Build it and they will come

Proposed legislation helps put wheels on Merrymeeting Trail

Nearly all of my bike rides finish up by utilizing the Kennebec River Rail Trail. The benefits are many. Whether I've cycled 20 miles or 70, using it to return to Hallowell allows me to cool down and relax, which is especially nice if I've encountered a lot of vehicular traffic. It's also quiet and peaceful — often serving as a reminder of why I ride. And the scenery is tough to beat; sprinkled occasionally with sightings of wildlife, even bald eagles.

You know the other thing I like about the rail trail? The people out enjoying it are also doing their bit to unwind from their hectic surroundings; thus, generally speaking, you find them in a good mood and offering a friendly wave or even saying "Hello."

The Kennebec River Rail Trail near Hallowell, Maine.

And now there is a big push to enhance this wonderful asset. A bill before the current Maine Legislature (LD 1141) would direct the Maine Department of Transportation to construct the Merrymeeting Trail from Gardiner to Topsham. The proposed 25-mile walking and biking path would link up with the Kennebec River Rail Trail (serving Augusta-Hallowell-Farmingdale-Gardiner) and the Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path (serving Brunswick-West Bath-Bath). With the addition of the village areas of Richmond and Bowdoinham, more than 80,000 people live in the communities that would be served by the proposed trail.

It would be built on top of the existing railroad bed. While the rail corridor could be reclaimed for any future train use, the likelihood of that happening is pretty remote. I read that Maine has owned this particular corridor for 30 years. For the first 10 years, an occasional freight or excursion train came rumbling down the tracks, but there has been virtually no use in the last 20 years.

Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell is the chief sponsor of the legislation. "I've seen how bike trails can generate economic development here on the Kennebec River Rail Trail," Warren said. "A 25-mile trail could make central Maine a biking destination."

The positives of this proposal are enormous. They include:

* Safety for cyclists and walkers

* The opportunity to bike to work

* Growing Maine's outdoor recreation industry. A study shows that 70 percent of Maine residents participate in outdoor recreation each year.

* Strengthen the downtowns of the communities connected to the trails

* Support better health

* Showing off Merrymeeting Bay — the largest freshwater tidal bay in the Northeast.

Jon Jennings of Hallowell, a frequent traveler on the Kennebec River Rail Trail, said, "The rail trail is the best thing in the Augusta-Gardiner area since sliced bread. It gets used a lot and is safe to walk and bike. You are next to the Kennebec River, which on a bad day is spectacular, and on a day when the light is right and the trees on the far side are reflected back on the water is breathtaking."

For the past decade, a group of municipal and recreational interests have been planning this ambitious, but essential project. And the trail has been endorsed by more than 24 organizations, including the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, land trusts, bike clubs and others.

While it is getting better, I believe Maine has many miles to go to truly become a bike-walk-friendly state. The thought of having the Merrymeeting Trail become a reality would be a huge plus in all our favors. So let's push hard to make it happen!

Editor's note: A bunch of my friends and I are doing the Frost Heave Fondo this Sunday in Searsmont, Maine. This first-ever event will have more than 100 cyclists. Stay tuned, as I will report back on any spills and thrills encountered on this 29-mile "spring classic" put on by the Midcoast Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association.

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