AUGUSTA — Trails or trains?

City councilors are asked to affirm, by two different constituencies, the city’s separate commitments to passenger rail service and the extension of a biking and hiking trail to connect Augusta to Topsham.

But but choosing one could potentially doom the future of the other, advocates told city councilors recently.

The railroad bridge over the Kennebec River on Friday in downtown Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

At issue now is a request from Merrymeeting Trail advocates for city councilors to endorse the ambitious proposal to connect the Kennebec River Rail Trail to existing trails in Topsham and Brunswick by building a new biking and hiking route in the rail corridor from Gardiner through Richmond and Bowdoinham to Topsham.

Frank O’Hara, an advocate for the trail, told city councilors Thursday that while the proposed trail would not run through Augusta, an endorsement  from the capital city’s leaders could go a long way toward changing the minds of state Department of Transportation officials, who have opposed the proposed trail project

Advocates for restoring passenger train service to Augusta — and potentially beyond to Waterville and Bangor — fear the Merrymeeting Trail proposal could squash any hopes they have of rail service returning to that corridor.

Richard Rudolph and Jack Sutton, directors of the Maine Rail Group, said once the rail corridor is converted to a trail, rail service will never return, due to the difficulty of both restoring the rails and reclaiming the space from those who would be using it as a trail.

“How are you ever going to get people, an established constituency, off the trail once it’s established and running? That can’t be done,” Sutton, of Belgrade, said to city councilors. “Once it’s converted, from a rail standpoint it’s gone. We urge the council to advocate for alternative routes for the Merrymeeting Trail. Find another way to do it and preserve the rail corridor from Brunswick to Augusta. Otherwise this will end the prospects for the return of passenger rail to Augusta.”

He and other rail advocates urged councilors to reaffirm the city’s commitment, expressed in a 2014 vote, to support efforts to return passenger train service to Augusta.

Rudolph urged officials not to make an endorsement without a feasibility study being done to assess the future prospects for returning rail service there.

A proposal seeking $300,000 in state funding for such a study failed to pass out of committee in the last session of the Maine Legislature, he said, but they plan to submit a similar bill during the next legislative session. If that proposal is to be successful, it would likely require the city to contribute funding to the cost of the study.

O’Hara said rail and trail could exist simultaneously, although building the Merrymeeting Trail so it could accommodate both would dramatically increase costs from roughly $10 million on top of the rail bed to about $50 million next to it.

The section of rail from Gardiner to Topsham isn’t as wide as the rail section where the Kennebec River Rail Trail was built in Augusta, Farmingdale and Gardiner. In January 2017, the state Department of Transportation oversaw the removal of the rail overpass bridge in Richmond.

This Friday August 23, 2019 photo shows the railroad bridge Friday over the Kennebec River in downtown Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

O’Hara said a better way to restore passenger train service to Augusta would be to run rail line in the Maine Turnpike’s right of way, providing a faster, more direct route with fewer street crossings that require trains to slow down than the existing rail line. Restoring service to the existing line would be costly and riders, who could take a bus from Augusta to Boston that’d be quicker than the train could get there, would be few. Subsidies would be required to close the sizable gap between the cost of the service and ticket sales revenues.

“You can have both (rail and trail), it’s not a matter of you have to make a choice,” said O’Hara, of Hallowell.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said some residents and officials in Augusta would like to be able to use the existing unused railroad trestle that crosses the Kennebec River in Augusta to build a pedestrian path from the north end of downtown to the Kennebec Lockes, a city-owned property and former mill site the city hopes will draw economic development to the east side of the river.

Rollins asked rail advocates whether they would object to a proposal for the trestle to be used in that way, at least until rail service were to return.

This circa 1915 photo shows the train station on Water Street in downtown Augusta. The tower of The Olde Federal Building is seen behind it at top right.

Currently, a section of rail just above downtown Augusta on Commercial Street is filled in with gravel to allow parking there. The tracks could be uncovered and reused if rail service returns, city officials said.

Rudolph said a passenger rail feasibility study should be done first before considering converting the Augusta railroad trestle to pedestrian use even temporarily.

Sutton said he would not support a proposal to change use of the trestle because he doesn’t think its use would ever be changed back to rail.

A proposal to build a train station at the Kennebec Lockes site has failed to attract the private development city officials would like to see at the riverside spot.

Councilors only discussed the issue Thursday, at a non-voting informational meeting but they may take it up at a future business meeting.

At-large Councilor Mark O’Brien, said the 2014 vote by councilors was unanimous in supporting the return of passenger rail to Augusta. He would again endorse a similar proposal to extend that support today.

O’Brien acknowledged passenger rail isn’t coming back anytime soon. If that changes, it could provide an economic boost to Augusta. He said councilors should keep in mind their responsibility is to do what they think is best for Augusta residents, not the communities to the south where the Merrymeeting Trail would be located.

“There are plenty of places to walk or bike, there aren’t that many places to run a train,” he said. “Common sense will tell you if we lose that rail to a bike or walking trail, it’s not going to be returned.”

Dale McCormick, a former city councilor, said she loves the Rail Trail and loves the Merrymeeting Trail proposal, but not if it prevents the future development of rail service in Augusta.

McCormick said if gas prices increase again, rail travel would be more feasible because of its energy efficiency and more popular with passengers. There should be a way to do both the trail project and protect the future of rail, she said.

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