Bicycle Paths: Earning widespread popularity in Maine
(from Maine Townsman, October 2000)
by Steve Cartwright, Selectman, Waldoboro
From Brunswick to Presque Isle, bicycle paths are appealing to young and old as a way to enjoy the outdoors, stay fit, run errands, perhaps even commute to work.
Some paths run only a short distance, others stretch for miles. What they have in common is a ban on motorized vehicles. Paths are shared by pedestrians, joggers, in-line skaters. Proponents of community bike paths claim that people are clamoring for this type of recreational opportunity, and that the biggest return on the investment is a better quality of life for local residents and visitors. The local economy may benefit, too, because bicycle paths attract tourists who seek nearby food and lodging.
John Balicki, bicycle/pedestrian coordinator at the Maine Department of Transportation, said he has some $3 million in federal enhancement funds that he hopes to award to pathway and sidewalk projects around the state. But he expects demand to exceed supply in the current round of grants. As interest in paths grows, new state funding of trails is a possibility, he said.
“My job is to get more people bicycling and walking for transportation,” he said. “My whole goal is making a system and a network . . . they (paths) do cost, and in terms of direct funding, we are limited.”
In Presque Isle, Jim Brown, economic and community development director, isn’t the only one who takes pride in six miles of bicycle and walking paths. “You talk to anybody in the community; I think everybody is proud of it,” he said. The trail connects schools, hospital and a shopping center with residential neighborhoods. It’s popular. “If you want to see something, be out on the bike path between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning. You’ll see more people than you’d believe.”
Brown, who has worked on the path project ever since he was a city planner in 1984, said people come from miles around to walk or bicycle Presque Isle’s trail. The path idea took off 20 years ago, when Canadian Pacific abandoned its rail line through town. Once the tracks, ties and ballast were removed, the two-mile graded right of way made an ideal path for pedestrians, joggers, wheelchairs, bicycles, skateboarders . . . but no ATVs, snowmobiles or other motorized vehicles, for which there are plenty of existing roads and trails.
Over the years, the city has added to the bike path, which in some areas follows sidewalks and roads. The goal is to have the entire pathway separate from car traffic. Four-foot wide sidewalk takes cyclists along roadways; the off-road sections are eight feet wide, which Brown says is wide enough for bicycles to pass each other, wheelchairs or pedestrians.
Presque Isle’s path provides access to Aroostook Medical Center, the local University of Maine campus, two elementary schools, a middle school, the high school, and Northern Maine Technical College. You can also reach Riverside Park on Prestile Stream, or visit a strip mall, or the downtown shopping district. “We effectively have linked every neighborhood in the city. You can get there from here, by way of a bicycle.”
Brown likes to walk the path with his wife, and if it’s after dark, lights at 200-foot intervals guide their steps. They might pause to admire a botanical garden — it’s shrubs, trees and flowers a gift to the trail from a local businessman. The Browns find the path a relaxing form of recreation. A less obvious benefit is that for a trip made on the bike path, there is often one less trip made by car. That decreases cost, traffic congestion and the pollution caused by auto emissions.
“It’s probably the most popular recreation facility in the city. We have people coming from Chapman, Easton, Mapleton. The really amazing thing is you’ll see school kids, adults and senior citizens all out there at the same time. It’s just very widely used.” Most of the funds to build the path came from state and federal grants; plus contributions from the city and other local groups.
Brown has one gripe about the path which is in fact a validation of its role in the community. He said you can’t maintain steady pace because you meet people along the way and stop to chat. “That’s probably the most wonderful criticism you could possibly have."
Minor vandalism such as throwing rocks at lights has ceased; motorized vehicles obey the rules and stay off the path. Local fears about a bicycle path running through the backyard seem to have been allayed by experience, by a sense of ownership. “Hey, that’s our bike path.”
In Brunswick, far south of Presque Isle, a 2.6 mile multi-use path along Merrymeeting Bay seems almost constantly in use, in all seasons. The $1.4 million project, perhaps the most ambitious in the state, was first discussed in 1991. A committee began work on it three years later, and the 14-foot wide path opened to the public in 1998. If features two-way bike lanes and a five-foot wide pedestrian lane.
Brunswick Parks & Recreation Director Tom Farrell said the project was an enormous undertaking and it met with resistance from people who thought it was a waste of money. “Some communities run into walls and give up. Don’t get discouraged,” he advised. “Study the problem. What is the issue? Educate yourself.”
Farrell believes the Brunswick path can be a catalyst for other bicycle-pedestrian projects.
If Brunswick’s trail is impressive, consider the 130-mile Sunrise Trail envisioned by Sally Jacobs of Orono. The 64-year-old cyclist has won $300,000 in state funding to design the path, which would mostly follow a railroad line from Brewer to Ellsworth, then east to Calais.
At first, Jacobs hoped the path could replace the rails, using the graded railroad bed. But state officials want to retain the discontinued line, so the trail must share the railroad right of way. She said 80 percent of the path will be alongside the tracks’ 20 percent along roads.
Jacobs said she established what was perhaps the first bicycle path in the state, between Orono and Old Town, in 1976. It lies partly on a long abandoned railroad which crosses the University of Maine. She said Orono residents consider the path an important feature of their town, along with a striped bike lane on town roads, sidewalks and a village center.
As for the Sunrise Trail, Jacobs praised MDOT bicycle coordinator John Balicki for his help. “He has been wonderful. He is so enthusiastic.”
“A lot of people say, “Why don’t you give up, Sally? You’ve been working on this for 10 years . . . I can’t,” she said.
NOTE: Bicycling maps of Maine are available from John Balicki: 287-3869 or email John.Balicki@state.me.us The Camden-Rockport bike path project has a web site at: www.camden.k2bh.com/crpathways