Rails To Trails: A Healthy Trend

(from Maine Townsman, November 2010)
by Liz Chapman Mockler

The official opening of the Down East Sunrise Trail this fall highlighted both the struggles and successes of converting old rail beds into valuable multi-use trails without destroying an irreplaceable, original rail corridor.

Twenty years in the works, the new 85-mile Sunrise Trail is considered a potential economic boon to the state’s poorest county of Washington, which hits up against the Atlantic Ocean and offers some of the most scenic views in Maine.

“I think it has already inspired enthusiasm and a feeling of ‘upbeatness,’ ” among users, businesses and others, said Sally Jacobs of Orono, one of 14 bicyclists who began pushing for the project in 1991.

Jacobs and her cycling friends biked on converted trials in Canada and Europe and noticed not only the heavy use, but also the trails’ economic impact to businesses and villages along their paths.

The Sunrise Trail (www.sunrisetrail.org), just the latest to be completed in Maine and among the longest, snakes its way from Hancock, four miles south of Ellsworth, to Pembroke, four miles from U.S. Route 1 and an easy jaunt to Eastport and Canada.

“I call (the rail line) a ‘gift from the past,’ ” Jacobs said, noting the converted rail bed had been abandoned by passenger trains in 1954 and then faded as a freight line in the late 1980s, when it was purchased by the state.

“We could never, ever replace that corridor,” she said.

When the trail opened with much ado in September, Jacobs said she and others, who were in their 50s and 60s when they started advocating for the trail, were so thrilled “we could hardly stand ourselves.”

Jacobs, now 74, and the other original advocates, recently biked the entire trail and got a lift back home from a new business created because of the trial – a shuttle service back to Hancock.

Along their trail ride, they stopped at local restaurants, beds and breakfasts, delis, convenience stores and gift shops.

Some businesses are moving closer to the trail or building private trails from the larger path to their establishments.

FOLLOW THE MONEY (TRAIL)A mountain biker makes his way down the Down East Sunrise Trail.

As with similar efforts around Maine, one of the biggest challenges was finding the money to turn the abandoned rails into useable trails.

The Sunrise Trail cost $5.5 million to build over two-and-a-half years. Not all trail groups have been as fortunate as the Sunrise advocates: The Down East project was paid for entirely by selling the rails and ties in the corridor – an agreement that came after many meetings with state officials.

Many bicycle and pedestrian trails that have been converted from rail beds and that run adjacent to railroad tracks use federal funds that are available for that purpose. But, nearly all of them also require fundraising of some sort.

Important to the Sunrise Trail, Jacobs said, was an agreement reached with the state Department of Transportation and Gov. John Baldacci that the “Calais Branch” corridor could be converted to a trail as long as it could be converted back to an active railroad line if that ever becomes an option.

Dan Stewart, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for DOT, said state transportation officials made an exception with the Sunrise Trail. Typically, the Maine Department of Conservation, a land trust or a municipality will purchase portions of abandoned rail beds and convert them to trails. That only happens after DOT has determined it is not going to preserve or develop rail service on that section of the route.

When DOT buys rail corridors, it intends to preserve them for potential rail service in the future. Therefore, it does not allow the rail bed to be taken up so a trail can be put down.

However, DOT allows trails to be built alongside the railroad bed, Stewart said. Those trails are known as “rails-with-trails” and are more costly than converting abandoned rail beds and must be “bitten off a couple of miles at a time,” Stewart said.

“It’s essentially like building a new road,” Stewart said of rails-with-trails projects.

When a city or town wants to develop a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor, or build a trail next to an existing rail bed, DOT will provide whatever help it can, Stewart said.

There are presently 500 miles of rail beds that have been converted to trails, and hundreds more miles of trails that run alongside railroad beds. Many rail-to-trail projects, particularly in rural parts of Maine, are built on rail beds that are rotted or have chunks of rail missing and would likely never be used for rail transportation again.


Rails-to-trails projects around Maine have been popular among so many groups that most trails remain open year-round. Allison Vogt, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine (www.bikemaine.org). Vogt said there have been complaints about users not being able to get along while using the trails but that such complaints are rare.

More typically, she said, users have been respectful to each other – particularly ATV riders, when they see an approaching runner, biker or walker.

The trails are used in the winter for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, walkers and parents tugging their children in sleds or toboggans.

Vogt, who said Bicycle Coalition membership stands at 3,000 households and growing, underscored the need for her group and others to work closely with municipal officials to build more trails.

In addition to converting rail beds to trails, there are a number of rail-with-trail projects in progress or being planned, Vogt said. In those projects, the state has determined the rail line should remain “active,” so the trail runs parallel to the rail bed except in places where the terrain won’t allow it.

Vogt cited three main benefits from the trend:The Down East Sunrise Trail at its western trailhead in Washington Junction, just east of Ellsworth.

• It gets bikers, runners and others off the main roads and into safer environs.

• It promotes a healthy lifestyle and creates opportunities for individuals, groups and families to stay or get active; active “stay-cations” have become more popular during this tough economy.

• And, it increases commercial activity along the trail, both for year-round businesses and those who cater to tourists.

Yogt said her coalition wants to work more closely with other groups and with municipalities to maintain the momentum for alternative modes of transportation.

The coalition plans to hold training classes for volunteers, so they can better advocate for local projects in their own towns and regions. Eventually, advocates hope the entire state will be connected by various kinds of trails.

Yogt said outdoor activists also need to support local officials as they try to improve the condition of some of the 14,000 miles of non-state roads.

Officials cut ribbon to commemorate the opening of the Sunrise Trail. Ideally, she said, municipalities would establish local government committees to work with the state and advocacy groups to promote more projects.

Jacobs, who pushed so long for the Sunrise Trail, said the project would not have possible without the support of DOT officials and Gov. Baldacci; Sen. Dennis Damon, who represents the region; and letters of support from municipal councilors and selectmen along the proposed route.

“All (18) of the towns wrote letters of support,” Jacobs said. “We could not have done it without that. We had a petition (for DOT and Baldacci) with over 500 signatures, including all of the letters from municipal officials.”


Maine’s rail trails have become part of what is known as the “East Coast Greenway” (www.greenway.org), an impressive network of trails starting at the top of Maine and winding its way to Florida. Vogt said the network is known as the “Appalachian Trail for Bikers.”

Bowdoinham Planner Nicole Briand has worked with Vogt and others in a long-term effort to build a rail-with-trail project to eventually extend the six-mile trail from Augusta to Gardiner south to Topsham. From there, the trail system would continue on to Portland, where it could be connected with other trails.

Briand said the towns of Bowdoinham, Topsham, Richmond and Gardiner have collaborated on the project, including raising $60,000 to help fund a corridor study that is expected soon. The study will detail the location options and costs of building connecting trails.

Briand said the DOT got involved after the four towns signed a memorandum of agreement to work as a team on the project.Longest Maine Rails-to-Trails

“I think that really made a difference. Having that agreement was the key, especially for (DOT),” she said.

Advocates don’t expect to convert rail beds, Briand said, because the rail is “active” and cannot be destroyed. They hope to build trails near the rails, she said.

In all, there are 20 partners working or supporting the proposed project.

Meanwhile, DOT continues to work on building trails from Biddeford-Saco into Portland and from the Gorham-Windham area into Portland.

“There’s a lot going on” throughout the state, said Maine DOT’s Stewart.


COLLABORATION CORNER: This article continues a regular feature in the Maine Townsman, highlighting ways that municipalities work together to become more efficient and better serve citizens.