In the past, I've often mentioned the enjoyment of finishing up my bicycle rides on the Kennebec River Rail Trail. It's relaxing, it's quiet, it offers beautiful natural scenery, and — most of all — it's safe. It is a valuable asset for our surrounding communities.
In the spring of 2019, I presented a blog posting that outlined proposed legislation to create the Merrymeeting Trail, which extends the Kennebec River Rail Trail system southward to Brunswick.
Just over a week ago, I was contacted to lend my support — through Pedal2Page — for this all-important and, I might add, vital project. Progress is being made, so in order to get the latest details, I reached out to Frank O'Hara of Hallowell, a volunteer advocate of the Merrymeeting Trail. Here are the questions I put to him:
Q. Where will the proposed Merrymeeting Trail run?
A. The trail connects the end of the Kennebec River Rail Trail in Gardiner to the Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path in Brunswick. It is proposed to run along the railroad right-of-way — rather than parallel to the tracks, as is done with the Kennebec Trail — because the costs of a parallel trail are very high. Ultimately, it is designed to connect through to the Brunswick train station and form a link to the Eastern Trail. The final configuration would be called the “Capital to Coast Trail” system.
Q. What sort of uses are proposed for the Merrymeeting Trail?
A. This will be determined in the current planning process.
Q. What is currently happening, officially, to determine whether the Merrymeeting Trail becomes a reality?
A. There is a Lower Road Rail Use Advisory Committee, comprised of local officials and rail and trail advocates, that has been called by the Maine Department of Transportation as a result of legislation which was instigated a few years ago. The first meeting was in November 2022, and they have now met twice. It is supposed to make recommendations to MDOT by this August. The group has three options to consider:
— No trail, keep the corridor exclusively for rail.
— Rail with trail, like Kennebec River Rail Trail.
— Interim trail, remove the tracks and make a trail, with the caveat that if train service comes along at a later time, the use must revert to rail.
Also, the committee will consider questions of motorized use and trail management.
Q. Is there any sort of timeline for the project?
A. The law requires that the committee makes its recommendations to the MDOT commissioner within nine months (i.e., this August). The commissioner may accept or reject the committee’s proposal. If he accepts a trail recommendation, he must then go through normal budgeting and legislative processes to get construction money and permission to remove tracks. So the recommendation is this summer; action may take years.
Q. Why is the Merrymeeting Trail so important? Why build the trail?
A. Several reasons:
— Makes use of an unused rail corridor
The 26-mile Merrymeeting Trail will once again make the Augusta Lower Road rail corridor an asset for the region.
— Connects communities and supports downtowns
The Merrymeeting Trail will offer connections that will make it easy for people using the trail to access downtowns and visit local businesses.
— Showcases the scenery of Merrymeeting Bay
Merrymeeting Bay is a place with statewide ecological significance and one of only four locations in the world where rivers meet to form a freshwater tidal delta. Much of the shore of Merrymeeting Bay does not currently have public access. This trail will provide a way for people to view and access the bay and experience this hidden jewel in Midcoast Maine.
— Provides a safe space for recreation, exploration, and exercise
Between 2014 and 2018 in Maine, 1,389 pedestrians and 960 cyclists were hit by vehicles. The Merrymeeting Trail will provide a safe off-road route for pedestrians and bicycles, and can help to save lives.
— Benefits local economies
A recent study found that the Merrymeeting Trail and the other trails that would compose the Capital to Coast Trail system could have an estimated economic impact of $1-10 million per year in trail-user spending on hard goods, soft goods, and accommodations.
— Supports health in our communities
The same study highlights research that shows people tend to exercise more if they have access to nearby trails. This exercise translates to better health and has been shown to correlate to a $300 reduction in per-capita medical costs. Within 20 miles of the Merrymeeting Trail and the other trails in the Capital to Coast Trail system, there are 122,000 people who would have immediate access to these benefits.
Q. How can people offer their support for the Merrymeeting Trail?
A. This is key. Because the committee has a rail advocate on it, it will likely not produce an unanimous recommendation. In two prior groups this year — Portland-Auburn and Mountain Division — the rail representatives submitted minority reports urging that no trail go forward.
In this situation, public input is key. The Portland-Auburn group ended up recommending a trail and noted in support that "over 700 public comments were received in an eight-month period from May 2022 through Dec. 14, 2022. Approximately 86 percent of the public comments received indicated support for a trail." So the number of comments makes a difference.
People can submit comments online at this website: www.maine.gov/mdot/ofps/ruac/lowerroad/contact
There are also opportunities at every meeting to speak publicly. To get on the agenda to make a statement, contact MDOT staffer Nate Howard at (207) 624-3310.
Merrymeeting Trail has a Facebook page where people can follow the process at www.facebook.com/merrymeetingtrail
I fully realize that a large portion of my regular blog readers are located beyond Maine's borders, but it's important for all of us to see that these types of projects are embraced and come to fruition. The Merrymeeting Trail, while being a wonderful benefit for those of us lucky enough to live here, also would be just one more reason for folks to come and visit our great state. Please reach out and lend your support. Stay safe!