Don’t miss Jeremy Cluchey’s op-ed in the Kennebec Journal on the Merrymeeting Trail process to date — and how you can get involved and support the project!
Meet Me on the Merrymeeting Trail
Imagine a trail from Augusta to Brunswick, offering rare and breathtaking views as it traces the Kennebec, Cathance, and Androscoggin rivers.
Running along an inactive state-owned railroad corridor, it would attract tourists from around the country, benefit small businesses in our town centers, and provide opportunities for exercise, alternative transportation, and connection to people of all ages in our communities.
This is the Merrymeeting Trail.
After 15 years of volunteer effort and community support, the Merrymeeting Trail is closer than ever to becoming a reality. For the past six months, an advisory council convened by the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) has been meeting to discuss potential uses of the dormant “Lower Road” rail corridor. Among the council members — who represent each of the local towns, as well as economic, rail, trail, and other relevant interests in the region — there has been broad consensus that the state should do *something* with the corridor. After sitting unused for the better part of four decades, it’s time for this public asset to bring value to local communities.
As part of the council’s inquiry, analysis by professional consultants has shown that train service along this line will not be viable anytime soon. Demand for freight has not existed for some time, and the math simply does not add up for passenger rail. A recent MaineDOT study estimates costs approaching $1 billion dollars to upgrade the infrastructure to meet modern rail needs; then — even with an annual state subsidy of $9.3 million — a one-way ticket from Brunswick to Bangor would still cost $118. And that doesn’t include the cost of constructing train stations.
With a projected demand of fewer than 240 trips per day through 2040, the study wisely proposes expanding bus service as “the cost-effective, timely, equitable, and climate-friendly way to improve public transportation in the study area.” It concludes that, “Given the relatively low transit demand, low population densities, high capital and operating costs, low climate and equity benefits, and extensive transportation needs statewide…it would be imprudent to continue the study of extending passenger rail to Bangor at this time.”
For the Lower Road corridor, this means the choice is not between using it for trail or for train, but rather between using it for trail or nothing at all.
Repurposing the corridor as a trail — the Merrymeeting Trail — would bring incredible benefits to our region. Such a change would be considered an interim use, with the corridor forever preserved for rail service, should demand and technology make returning trains to this part of Maine feasible in the future.
Whatever your views on this project, the council wants to hear from you. You are invited to join a virtual public forum on Thursday, June 22, at 6 p.m. via Zoom to share your perspective with the advisory council members and MaineDOT. (Visit merrymeetingtrail.org for the webinar link as soon as it is available.)
After hearing from the community, the council will vote on a recommendation and submit a report to the commissioner of the MaineDOT, who can then bring the proposal to the Legislature as a next step.
As Maine charts its transportation future, we have a unique opportunity to create new, equitable active transportation routes that bring enormous benefits to our communities. The Merrymeeting Trail is a prime example.
If the state of Maine can be creative and resourceful in making the best use of this languishing public asset, we may soon be able to say to our friends, neighbors, children, and grandchildren, “Meet me on the Merrymeeting Trail!”ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Cluchey represents trail groups on Maine Department of Transportation’s Lower Road Rail Corridor Use Advisory Council. He is a former Bowdoinham selectman.