The Bicycle Coalition of Maine is closely monitoring conversations about how Maine might re-purpose currently unused rail corridors around the state. At stake is whether these state-owned corridors might be:
- Returned to active rail use, or
- Converted to interim trail use until such time as rail operations are feasible, or
- Converted to combined rail-with-trail use.
As the state considers what the best immediate use of these corridors might be, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine wants to make its perspective clear on each of the three options.
In general, the BCM believes that the interim conversion of rail corridors into trails for active transportation users is the best and highest-impact use of these public resources.
Return the Corridor to Active Rail Use
The BCM believes that a robust passenger and freight rail system is important to Maine’s transportation needs, and could provide a way for active transportation users to move around the state without needing automobiles. Bicycles, along with other micromobility devices, could be brought on trains and used at the end points of train trips to reach local destinations faster than walking alone. We also support moving more freight by rail, as it may help reduce the volume of trucks on the road.
Unfortunately, Maine does not appear to have any firm plans to implement new passenger rail or freight within the next five years on any of the corridors currently owned by the state. The release of the Maine State Rail Plan in December of 2022 should clarify any plans the state has in development.
The BCM also believes that market forces will ultimately determine whether an investment in rail is likely to happen, and there has been little publicly available comment from potential investors/operators on the topic of bringing rail back to fallow corridors.
Some recent efforts to encourage rail on unused corridors have been unsuccessful. For example, in 20081, train tracks went back down on segments of the Mountain Division Line, but no trains have ever been used on those tracks. The reinstallation of tracks appears to be a poor use of taxpayer dollars, and it shut down an important active transportation connection between Sebago Lake and Westbrook.
In the absence of any interest from a rail operator to bring back rail service within five years, the BCM does not support the continued upkeep of rail on unused corridors that have incredible value as active transportation routes.
Convert the Corridor to an Interim Trail until Rail Operations are Feasible
Under Maine’s State Railroad Preservation Act (Title 23, Chapter 615 §7107), all conversions of state owned rail corridors into trails are considered “interim,” and “the rail corridor[s] will be preserved for future rail use.” State law makes it clear that creating a trail on any state-owned corridor is temporary until such time as the corridor is needed for rail use.
Among all the options available, with an aggregate surface, the conversion of rail corridors to interim trail use is generally the least expensive option available to the state with enormous public health and active transportation benefits. It may even be possible to let the railroad ties stay down and simply cover them with a packable crushed gravel that permits rapid access for the reinstallation of tracks when rail operations become feasible again.
In addition, the creation of multi-use paths is a proven economic and tourism driver, as demonstrated by the Eastern Trail and Downeast Sunrise Trail
Given the clarity in state law, and in the absence of any evidence of momentum towards rail service resumption in a five year window, the BCM believes that the interim conversion of rail corridors into trails for active transportation users is the best and highest-impact use of these public resources.
Convert the Corridor to Rail with Trail Use
Rail with trail may appear to be a solution that allows for both uses, however economic feasibility studies repeatedly show this to be the most expensive option and therefore the least likely to be funded. In all likelihood, the high price tag would result in neither rail nor trail being built and the corridor left in limbo.
As an example, here is the final report of the Mountain Division Feasibility Study, commissioned by the MaineDOT and produced by engineering firm HNTB in March of 2022.
In the table from the study, the lowest cost for a trail alone is about $17 million dollars. A Class 1 Rail line on the corridor would cost around $52 million. But rail with trail on this corridor ranges between $135 million to $146 million dollars. It is by far the most expensive option available, costing about $115 million more than a stone dust trail alone, and more than $80 million more than just restoring rail.
In the draft report for the Portland to Auburn line, Berlin Subdivision Rail Corridor Study, estimated costs indicate $274 million to restore passenger rail, $47-55 million for an interim trail until rail, and an additional $94 million to construct a trail adjacent to the existing tracks. Building an adjacent trail is nearly double the cost of converting the existing corridor to a trail.
The upcoming release of the State Active Transportation Plan includes cost estimates for rail corridor options that indicate similar costs for other lines. Rail with trail is so expensive to implement that we believe it would not happen in a reasonable timeframe, if at all.
For this reason, the BCM opposes most recommendations of rail with trail, as we see it as a false compromise that only preserves the current unused state of the corridors. Furthermore, the moment to consider rail with trail is when rail service is feasible to return, even if a trail has been in place for a decade. At that point, the community support for an expenditure that both preserves a valuable active transportation asset and restores a valuable rail asset may be more feasible. As a reminder, Maine law requires all conversions of state owned rail corridors into trails to be “interim,” and “the rail corridor[s] will be preserved for future rail use.” Therefore, converting to trail until rail becomes feasible would allow Maine to benefit from active transportation corridors that provide mobility, encourage tourism, and stimulate economic growth.