WESTBROOK, Maine — A Maine nonprofit is on a mission to bring more visitors to the state and encourage those already here to spend more time outdoors getting active.
The Mountain Division Alliance has been around for about 30 years. Its vision is to create a continuous trail on or alongside mostly-dormant railroad tracks that run from Fryeburg to Portland. This project would connect communities with similar paths, like the Mountain Division Trail in Windham, which was created in the early 2000s.
"I came here when this was just gravel, and I rode on it anyways," longtime Windham resident Doug Smith said. "Then, they paved it — and I was in heaven."
Smith has been riding his bike on the Mountain Division Trail in Windham for years. He said he comes about three times a week between May and November for 11-mile roundtrips. He's found it's as much about the community as the exercise.
"I've started getting to know people on the trail. You see them day in, day out — and you start waving. And soon the conversation emerges," Smith said.
Smith and Windham's director of parks and recreation, Linda Brooks, both support the idea of expanding the Mountain Division Trail. Brooks said she was sure it would be successful.
"In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week — the parking lot [is] nearly full for the trailhead," Brooks said. "On a weekend, the cars are spilling out of the trailhead onto the side roads."
Paul Drinan is a leadership team member with the Mountain Division Alliance. He said the group's goal is to help the environment and the economy, noting Maine's outdoor recreation scene contributes $2.9 billion annually to the state's economy.
"In some areas of the state, there [are] trees growing up out of the tracks," Drinan said. "The trains aren’t coming back in these areas."
Drinan said this project could particularly help the western, more rural communities where the railroad tracks haven't been used in quite some time — and fewer people tend to visit during tourism season.
"Those areas will really see business development, business growth, [and] property value increase," Drinan said.
Recently, a 12-member council with the Maine Department of Transportation completed a seven-month-long review of this project for the Fryeburg to Standish portion of the trail.
The council was made up of representatives from every town located along this rail corridor (including Standish, Baldwin, Hiram, Brownfield, and Fryeburg), as well as representatives from state agencies, regional planning organizations, the Portland Water District, and rail and trail advocates.
The council voted 11 to one to recommend converting 31 miles of existing railroad tracks into an "interim" 10-foot-wide paved bicycle and pedestrian trail. The council also recommended that snowmobiles be allowed on the trail but not ATVs or other motorized recreational vehicles. Drinan said per a Maine law, the path could be converted back into a railroad track in the future, if necessary.
"We’re optimistic that the Standish to Fryeburg section will be considered a shovel-ready project sometime in the next 12 months," Drinan said.
The Maine DOT said the council still needs to do a final review of this report before adopting it as its final. Then, it will go to the department's commissioner for review. After that, the Maine Legislature will have the ultimate say regarding whether to adopt the report or not. And that is likely where conversations about funding will happen.
In the meantime, the City of Westbrook and the town of Windham are working together with a $350,000 award from the state to create a design for a plan in that area, pending approval. Westbrook's economic development director Dan Stevenson said the proposal would have significant implications for the area.
"Companies want to locate and expand in communities that invest in themselves — and that’s exactly what we will experience here in the region when this comes to fruition," Stevenson said.
Josh Levy, the founding partner with Waterstone Properties at Rock Row in Westbrook, echoed that sentiment.
"It’s certainly a great boost and convenience and [a] way to reduce traffic in the area," Levy said. "[In] Westbrook [and] all of the other areas, I wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to several billion dollars of economic development. We actually studied that.”
Some people don't support all parts of this proposal, including the Maine Rail Transit Coalition. Tony Donovan with the group told NEWS CENTER Maine that he primarily wants to protect the 16 miles of rail from Portland to Sebago Lake since it's a congested area. Donovan said he thinks a key to reducing climate change is by offering people alternative forms of transportation, like a passenger train — instead of getting rid of it in busy areas.