2016-12-09 / Community

Deadline looms for trail extension

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer


As fundraising for the Eastern Trail’s Close the Gap campaign continues, officials from Scarborough are helping create final designs and gain environmental permits and right of way easements. The project would connect the Eastern Trail from the Nonesuch River in Scarborough to Wainwright Recreation Complex in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) As fundraising for the Eastern Trail’s Close the Gap campaign continues, officials from Scarborough are helping create final designs and gain environmental permits and right of way easements. The project would connect the Eastern Trail from the Nonesuch River in Scarborough to Wainwright Recreation Complex in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) The race is on to raise the remaining funds to extend the Eastern Trail and form a connection between Scarborough and South Portland.

While the gap is only 1.6 miles – from Defosses Avenue in Scarborough to Wainwright Recreation Complex in South Portland – making the connection has proven difficult, and costly, due to the need to cross over the Nonesuch River and Amtrak/ Pan American rail line. The gap is the only piece missing of an off-road trail between South Portland and Saco.

“It’s a small piece of mileage, but really a critical piece,” said Carole Brush, executive director of the Eastern Trail Alliance, the volunteer-based organization that was formed in 1997 to develop the Eastern Trail.

The Eastern Trail, which covers 65 miles from Kittery to South Portland, is the northern section of the East Coast Greenway, a trail system spanning 2,900 miles between Calais, Maine and Key West, Florida.

Approximately $600,000 of the $3.8 million cost is still outstanding. Town Planner Dan Bacon said half the cost of the project – $1.6 to $2 million – is due to the need to construct a bridge and the associated approaches over the Pan-American railway, which is used several times a day by the Amtrak Downeaster and freight trains. The bridge over the Nonesuch River, by comparison, is much easier and cheaper. Because the bridge abutments are still in place from where the old Eastern Railroad crossed the river, and only a bridge is needed the cost is expected to be between $100,000 and $140,000.

The deadline is to have the money committed by the end of the year. If that doesn’t happen the project could stall or funding from the Maine Department of Transportation could be diverted to other projects, although Brush said she doesn’t expect the DOT will enforce that deadline.

“We are doing well,” Brush said late last week. “We are $600,000 away, which is still a lot to raise,” she said.

Starting the project is contingent on securing the funding, but the hope is to start construction sometime next year.

Officials in Scarborough have been pinning for the trail connection for years and the town, through its fiscal year 2017 budget, allocated $216,000 to the cause this summer. Officials have also been working with the Eastern Trail Alliance, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and other groups on the fundraising push.

Similarly South Portland has also financially backed the Close the Gap campaign.

“In general these connections for the Eastern Trail are a big deal and have the potential to hugely expand bike tourism and recreation in this area,” South Portland Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser wrote in an email to the Leader.

The project has also received ample support from outside the Scarborough/ South Portland community. The Maine Department of Transportation, which has committed $1.55 million to Close the Gap campaign, sees the project as the “highest priority” trail project in the state. Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System has agreed to provide $1.1 million. Brush said the Bicycle Coalition of Maine has also been a big supporter of the project.

“We’ve been working on this, it seems lie, probably eight years at this point. We feel like we are getting close. The further we get in terms of design work, the more contributions, we hope to get,” Bacon said. “We are excited and optimistic about completing this.”

Bacon said his department, along with the Community Services Department have also been working with HNTB, an infrastructure solutions firm with an office in Westbrook, on final design.

“The preliminary design was completed a few years ago, but we were looking for addition funding to bring it from the preliminary to final design stage,” Bacon said.

Bacon said that work, along with environmental permitting and right of way acquisition, will take place over the next six to eight months. The goal is to complete all that work by fall 2017 and begin construction this time next year.

The trail, once completed, would connect to Wainwright Recreation Complex, a popular recreational facility off Highland Avenue in South Portland and would link the Eastern Trail to the South Portland Greenbelt, a trail extending through the city from Wainwright to Bug Light Park.

Much of the Eastern Trail through Scarborough runs along the old Eastern Railroad, that operated from 1842 to 1945 and was the first railroad to connect Boston to Portland. The trail opened in Scarborough in 2004.

The Scarborough-South Portland connection is but just one of the gaps the Eastern Trail Alliance is looking to fill.

“We are hoping filling this gap provides the momentum to fill the other gaps further south with the Biddeford-Saco connection, that again involves a bridge and train crossing, taking it south to Kennebunk to South Berwick and then down to Kittery,” Brush said.

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