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By: Robert Janis


An Anatomy of a Rails-to-Trails Project in Maine

Question:  What if your state has an old railroad corridor that is not being used, but it needs to be available for rail service sometime in the future? What would you do? The state of Maine had such a dilemma, and it decided to convert an 85-mile long corridor of rail into a trail. The corridor remains available to railroad service should the need arise. Also, the cost of construction is being paid out of the money received for the salvaging of the rails.

Known as the Downeast Sunrise Trail, it runs along the entire Downeast coastal area of Maine and connects multiple scenic conservation areas, intersects salmon rivers and is near two state-designated scenic highways. It will be a multi-use trail. That is, it will be used by ATV’ers, snowmobilers, hikers, walkers, equestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and cross country skiers.

History of the Project

The Maine Department of Transportation acquired the corridor from the Maine Central Railroad in 1987 to preserve it for future rail use. The land was basically left alone while the Department of Transportation tried to determine how to use it.

While the decision was pending, the Sunrise Trail Coalition was formed in 1991 with the mission of convincing the Department of Transportation to convert the corridor into a trail. The Coalition consists of groups who would use the trail for recreation including ATV and snowmobile clubs and others.

The fact that the corridor was there and that the Department of Transportation owned it and was trying to decide how to use it was known by basically the entire population of the state of Maine. All knew that whatever was done with the corridor, it had to be preserved for possible rail use in the future.

Sally Jacobs organized the Coalition, and Bill Ceckler is the current president. Ceckler noted that he and Jacobs used to hike and ski on the railroad bed; and each thought that since it wasn’t being used, it would make a terrific trail.

The Maine Department of Transportation held a number of meetings to decide what to do with the corridor keeping in mind that it needed to be preserved for possible rail use later. “People told the DOT that there wasn’t enough population and business density in Downeast Maine to support a railroad,” said Ceckler. “And the DOT was also told that if the corridor was to be used for a railroad in the future, the DOT would have to re-build it. They would have to take up the old rails and ties and re-build the bed.

“The Coalition argued that if the DOT had to re-build the corridor before they ever think about re-using it, then why not use the rail bed as a recreation trail until there is a justification to re-activate it as a railroad.” Ceckler added that the group agreed with the Maine DOT that if or when the state needed to re-activate the railroad, the Coalition would move the trail.

So the Coalition approached the Department of Transportation with its idea and Jacobs and Ceckler talked up the plan. As Ceckler was on a citizens’ advisory committee to the Department of Transportation for Hancock and Washington Counties, and Jacobs was involved in several transportation committees in Augusta, they kept nagging the DOT after a proposal was submitted.

The DOT did a study on possibly putting a trail beside the rail bed. According to Dan Stewart of the Maine Department of Transportation, the study found that it would be extremely costly to execute such a plan, but it would be cheaper to do a rail-to-trail conversion of the corridor.

The Governor of Maine then asked the DOT to do a feasibility study for a Rails-to-Trails project and create a plan as to who would manage the site and how to use the trail to rehabilitate the corridor, explained Stewart. “So the DOT created a management planning committee which determined that the Maine Department of Conservation would be the best agency to oversee the rehabilitation, construct, and maintain the corridor. DOT would remove the rails because they were substandard anyway and the money received for the salvage of the rails would be used to fund the construction of the trail,” said Stewart.

Public hearings were held to discuss the project and the management plan, and then the idea was passed on to the state legislature. After hearings in the legislature, the Rails-to-Trails management plan was passed by the legislature as a rehabilitation project.

The DOT then accepted bids to contract out the construction. Vaughn Thibodeau & Sons of Bangor, Maine was chosen as the lowest bidder. The rehabilitation of the railroad corridor from Washington Junction in Hancock, Maine, to Ayers Junction in Pembroke, Maine started in June 2008.

Construction and the Future

On October 22, 2009 the first 32 miles of the trail was opened from Machias to Pembroke, explained Skip Varney, senior planner, Department of Conservation Bureau of Parks & Lands, Off-Road Vehicle Division. He noted that after construction is completed, the Department of Conservation Bureau of Parks & Lands, Off-Road Vehicle Division will be given the authority to maintain the trail. User fees will be used to pay for the maintenance work. It is expected that ATV and snowmobile club members will do volunteer work including additional signage and light maintenance, said Varney.

Varney noted that current work involves 24 bridges on the trail. “We’re getting the bridges in order from Washington Junction through the rest of the trail,” he said. So far, about 80 percent of the bridges have been completed. It is hoped that the rest will be done by the end of December.

Charles Corliss, recreational trail coordinator for the Department of Conservation, Bureau of Parks and Lands, Off Road Vehicle Division, is the manager of the Sunrise Trail. He is currently managing the construction. Once construction is complete, he will oversee activities on the trail including signage and maintenance. According to Corliss, major maintenance work, like fixing damaged culverts, may be contracted out or handled through The Department of Conservation. The off-road vehicle division has tractors, bulldozers, and excavators to assist with assorted projects. Volunteers from the various clubs in the area will do the light work.

Corliss is a major ATV enthusiast. He said that the biggest thing about the trail for ATV’ers is that it will connect with more than 800 miles of interconnected ATV trails that run north-south through Maine. The Sunrise Trail runs east-west.

“Compared with other ATV trails, this trail will be the jewel of Downeast Maine. It will help ATV recreationists reach a lot of beautiful areas of the state,” he concluded.

The trail is scheduled to be complete by September 2010.

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