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Only Steps Forward: Regional trails, parks could link historic downtowns, other regions

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

With the arrival of spring, it’s good to point our minds to something that’s not white snow out our windows. As a follow-up to my update last week on the Androscoggin and Little Androscoggin Rivers more broadly, I wanted to provide an update on two projects that were first envisioned 20 years ago that could be prime to move forward.

In the late 1990s, the Cities of Auburn and Lewiston, along with the Androscoggin Land Trust, created a grand vision for an Androscoggin Greenway; an interconnected network of trails and parks that would link our historic downtown neighborhoods with regions to our north and south.

Throughout the country at that time, railroad lines long unused were being converted to regional trail corridors. The thought here in Lewiston-Auburn was to convert portions of the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad line just off Washington Street into a trail that would lead into Simard-Payne Railroad Park and also connect across the Little Androscoggin River to New Auburn and Mill Street. Another segment of trail would run from behind the Hill Mill and Lepage Bakeries near Cedar Street south along the old PanAm Railways line to Lisbon Falls and over time beyond.

In the first few years after the vision was rolled out, several segments were built. The rail line from Bonney Park, over the walking bridge and into Lewiston to Oxford Street, was built. Engineering plans were commissioned to complete the section under Main Street in Auburn and around the opposite river shore of the Barker Mill. Unfortunately, not long after the engineering plans were complete the project was shelved.

In place of the trail were concepts to have the State of Maine and the Lewiston Auburn Railroad company take over the PanAm line from Lewiston and build a new, active freight rail line through the heart of Downtown Lewiston-Auburn and back to the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad line and across Washington Street.

Despite there being little evidence this plan would work, and with PanAm having no interest in turning their freight line over to the state to compete with their line from Brunswick to Portland, the trail momentum was more than stalled—it was completely stopped.

Today, the realities are much different, and we are ripe to move on this project if both cities, our friends in Lisbon and the board of directors of the Lewiston Auburn Railroad (of which I am a member) can agree to move on it.

From the New Auburn side, starting at the Barker Mill Trail, crossing the Little Androscoggin River and then continuing into town on the rail line, the line is already owned locally (by the Lewiston Auburn Railroad) and could be integrated into a larger construction project to restore the rail bed and put down a trail surface. The on-going relicensing of the Barker Dams provides a potential funding source, as the dam owner must provide for public access around the river; this trail could be a mechanism for that.

On the Lewiston side, recent discussions with PanAm leave them apparently more open to a partnership if attempts to put freight on that line are off the table (unless they are the ones providing the service). Since that is highly unlikely in the next few generations, an interim step of restoring the rail bed for trail use is on the table. The federal surface transportation board has a process that allows a railroad like PanAm to file for abandonment of the line and then suspend that application when a request is filed for a recreational trail license on the line.

Given that the Lewiston Auburn Railroad already has a mechanism by which it can hold real estate rights on transportation corridors, I have proposed that both cities ask the LA Railroad to pursue this with PanAm. The LA Railroad has a revenue stream from the lease of its freight line near the Auburn airport that could be committed to the project, reducing the need for property taxpayers to fund it.

The 13 miles from Cedar Street to Lisbon, owned by PanAm, still has much of the rail infrastructure on it, so there would be a cost to stripping this down, rebuilding the rail bed and putting down a trail surface. Given the dedicated state and federal dollars supporting this type of work, including the potential to link in snowmobile clubs and ATV clubs in Lisbon, securing funding over the next two to three years would not be as difficult as it has been for other local trail projects.

While it’s taken 20 years from initial vision for a regional trail linking our neighborhoods and heading downstream towards Lisbon, it looks like the timing could be perfect for us to move as a community and move quickly. If you’re on board, I urge you to reach out to your City Councilors in either city.

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