Study Considers 5.8-mile Portland to Westbrook Rail-with-Trail Project

Active rail corridor offers enough unused space for a separate, safe parallel trail

PORTLAND – September 16, 2019 — A study recently prepared for The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) by South Portland engineering and planning firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) has found that a paved recreational trail could feasibly be created alongside the existing 5.8-mile stretch of railroad tracks connecting downtown Portland to downtown Westbrook, a section of railroad that is also being evaluated for daily passenger rail service.

The trail study, which was completed in January, takes on a new level of viability in light of recent interest in a Portland-Westbrook passenger rail service. Since the July release of a second feasibility study on the passenger rail line, several private sector organizations have formed a supportive coalition called the Portland West Railway (PWR) Alliance, sparking a lively conversation among more than 400 individuals who follow the alliance’s Facebook page.

What is Rail-with-Trail, and why is it popular?

Rails-with-trails are what they sound like: they’re shared-use paths that run alongside active rail lines, providing a distinct and separate right of way for bikers and pedestrians, minimizing trespassing on active tracks, giving bicyclists safer off-road routes, and adding to a community’s multi-modal transportation network. Rails-with-trails are typically constructed either within or immediately adjacent to railroad rights of way, which can be as narrow as the track itself to as wide as a football field – often providing plenty of extra space for recreational use. Rails-with-trails are different from rail-trails, which are trails built on railroad rights of way to replace abandoned, deconstructed railroad tracks.

In a society demanding more public transportation options and recognizing the value of rehabilitating abandoned tracks for commuter rail service, the rail-with-trail approach is having a renaissance. The option has grown in popularity over the past few decades, from 61 such trails nationwide in 2000 to 353 today, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Of those, eight currently exist in Maine.

Design Considerations for a Portland-Westbrook Rail-with-Trail

As outlined in the study, the proposed rail-with-trail system from Portland to Westbrook would meet all Maine DOT minimum standards, plus any imposed by the Mountain Division railway. It would be 10 feet wide, paved, and designed to accommodate moderate pedestrian and bicycle traffic, with a minimum 15-foot separation between the trail surface and railroad tracks, except in areas where certain geographic characteristics allowing for a shorter distance (still no less than 10.5 feet). In some areas, creating a trail would involve removal of unused rail siding, and/or brush and vegetation in the right of way.

Costs and Funding

The study estimates that a continuous rail-with-trail system would cost roughly $5 million, segmented into six sections or legs whose development costs range from the $200,000 range to more than $3 million. This scope of work and cost estimate is currently being reviewed and refined by stakeholders including Rock Row developer Waterstone Group and its design director Fred Yalouris, who is overseeing a project team already planning additional trails and parks on the Rock Row site. According to Yalouris, the generous right-of-way spanning most of the Portland-Westbrook line would allow for some exciting landscape architecture possibilities at a minimal development cost.

In 2018, $766,802,216 was set aside for rail-trail and rail-with-trail projects as part of the federal Transportation Alternatives (TA) program. TA funding typically will cover up to 80 percent of a rail-with-trail project’s cost. Of the total amount set aside in 2018, $2,058,242 was allocated to projects in Maine – less than two tenths of one percent of the federal pie. With a robustly planned project for the Portland-Westbrook rail-with-trail, Maine could apply for additional funding and, with just this one initiative, more than double its portion of the set-aside.

Existing Rails-with-Trails in Maine

Maine already has eight rail-with-trail systems: The Eastern Promenade trail and Fore River Parkway in Portland, the Mountain Division trail from Windham to Fryeburg, the Down East Sunrise Trail, the Ellsworth Rail Trail, the Kennebec River Rail Trail, the Papermill Trail, and the Whistle Stop Rail-Trail.

 

Maine’s Existing Rail-with-Trail Projects
Trail Name Total Trail Length Rail-with-Trail Length
Down East Sunrise Trail 87.9 2.6
Eastern Promenade Trail 2.1 1.33
Ellsworth Rail Trail 1.6 1.3
Fore River Parkway Trail 2.6 0.06
Kennebec River Rail Trail 6.5 5.4
Mountain Division Trail 9.7 8.5
Papermill Trail 4 1.2
Whistle Stop Rail-Trail 15.8 0.7

 

Additional Resources:

VHB Study, full text:

https://www.nnepra.com/sites/default/files/Westbrook_RWT_2018.pdf

America’s Rails with Trails (Rail-to-Trail Conservancy, 2013): https://www.railstotrails.org/resourcehandler.ashx?name=americas-rails-with-trails-report&id=2982&fileName=RwT%20Report_FINAL_103113_low%20res.pdf

Portland West Railway Alliance:

https://pwralliance.org

https://fb.me/pwrail