This op-ed originally ran in the Kennebec Journal on August 28, 2021:
Exciting Steps Forward on the Path to the Merrymeeting Trail
You may have heard about the Merrymeeting Trail — a 26-mile multi-use trail that would join the Kennebec River Rail Trail in the north to the Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path in the south, linking Augusta to Brunswick (and one day to Bath!) in an incredible “capital to coast” connection. For over a decade, towns and volunteers along the route have worked to make this vision for connected communities a reality. It’s exciting to see that their efforts are bearing fruit.
Several new laws have important implications for this project. One created a process whereby the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) can consider repurposing unused rail corridors as trails on an interim basis. Another requires MDOT to create an “active transportation plan” (focused on human-powered transit, like walking and cycling) in the next 18 months — and to consider unused rail corridors in that plan. Yet another heartening sign came when MDOT added $25,000 to its Work Plan for a Merrymeeting Trail public advisory process.
At the same time, MDOT will be conducting a propensity study to determine the potential for public transit, including bus and train service, between Portland and Bangor. For rail, it is likely that the most efficient and cost-effective route will be along the “Back Road” line, which could link Portland, Lewiston/Auburn, Waterville, and Bangor. Stops could also be added near Augusta in towns like Belgrade and Winthrop. That would leave the “Lower Road” – from Brunswick north to Augusta – free to be repurposed as a trail.
All this planning comes at a pivotal moment. There is the very real potential for significant federal investment in infrastructure, which means it’s critical that Maine be ready to direct funding to priority projects. Thinking holistically about our transportation future means we’ll be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — to invest in rail where it makes sense, and to connect our communities with multi-use trails along some of Maine’s unused rail corridors where it doesn’t. These corridors are languishing public assets, and it’s time to use them for the highest community benefit.
Our communities understand the value of trails. Towns fortunate enough to have them enjoy economic, environmental, and public health benefits. Trails attract visitors who spend money on local businesses, and new residents looking for livable communities. They provide alternative transportation routes, reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (and supporting Maine’s Climate Action Plan, which seeks “reduction in vehicle miles traveled”). And research has shown that every dollar invested in trails yields three dollars in medical cost savings, as trail users are better able to stay active as they get older.
Towns up and down the Kennebec would see these benefits and more from the Merrymeeting Trail. The Kennebec River Rail Trail could be expanded into a dual-path trail to carry even more pedestrians and cyclists into downtown Augusta, with the exciting potential to bring trail travelers to the east side of the river as well. Businesses in Brunswick, Topsham, Bowdoinham, Richmond, and Gardiner would all benefit from this new route for customers to reach their
It’s an exciting moment, and an enormous opportunity. If you’d like to learn more or get involved, visit merrymeetingtrail.org, which has maps of the route and lots more information. You can also contact your local and state representatives and let them know you support the Merrymeeting Trail. If we work together, we could soon have one of Maine’s most extraordinary community assets – and a major economic driver – right here in our region.
Jeremy Cluchey is a volunteer with the Merrymeeting Trailblazers and the Maine Trails Coalition. He lives in Bowdoinham.