2018-01-25 / Editorial

Eastern Trail has come a long way

Legislative Lowdown
by Rep. Martin Grohman

When I first moved to Biddeford 18 years ago, the path that is now the Eastern Trail was just a four wheeler track. I lived on Mountain Road and I was fortunate to have access from my backyard. But the trail was arguably kind of sketchy and quite swampy. There was no formal access point for people not as lucky as me to have direct access. If I headed out there to snowshoe or mountain bike, I practically never saw anyone else.

It’s amazing to see how much has changed. The Eastern Trail, now graded and firmly surfaced with formal access points at Southern Maine Health Care and Thornton Academy, sees more than 100,000 users a year and generates more than a million dollars a year in economic activity for area merchants. Starting in Biddeford and heading south, this off-road section of the Eastern Trail provides more than six miles of flat, easy and scenic terrain connecting Biddeford, Arundel and Kennebunk. It also includes the only pedestrian bridge over the Maine Turnpike. It truly is a hidden gem.

Heading north from Thornton Academy, the trail runs all the way to Scarborough Marsh off road. It is built along the old Eastern Railroad Corridor, which was the first railroad to connect Boston to Portland, operating from 1842 until 1945. Soon, it will run all the way to South Portland’s Bug Light, thanks to a recent successful Closing the Gap fundraising campaign that will help fund construction of bridges over the railroad tracks and the Nonesuch River in Scarborough.

The trail is part of a larger vision, called the East Coast Greenway, which spans 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida. About one-third of it (led by the sections in Maine) is off-road today but one day, the founders hope to have an entirely off-road trail, similar to – and in fact longer than – the Appalachian Trail, but focused on a wider range of users including cyclists and walkers. This may seem like an unlikely goal, but the group has a track record of success.

Many people are surprised that the Eastern Trail is so flat and accessible. It’s close to the city, but feels miles from anywhere. Walk a short section and you’ll pass through forests, marshes and grasslands. The firm surface of stone dust is wheelchair accessible and great for strollers. Leashed dogs are allowed. There are health benefits to being outside, and in fact the staff from Southern Maine Health Care, Biddeford’s hospital, use the trail as part of their cardiac care and cancer therapy programs. It’s not groomed or plowed, so right now, you’ll need footwear with good traction (I recommend Stabilicers, made right here in Biddeford), snowshoes, or a fat bike for the best trail experience.

One of the biggest challenges that faces users of the trail who want to extend the off-road experience today is how to get from Biddeford to Saco. Today, signs point users along Barra Road, over Thatcher Brook on a footbridge, and through the Cathedral Oaks neighborhood. From there, however, it’s all on surface roads to Thornton Academy, which is a particularly tough section in the winter. The Eastern Trail Alliance hopes to close this gap one day, but it won’t be easy – it will require crossing both the Saco River, a very large river, and working in conjunction with the Pan Am/ Downeaster rail line to develop bridges, all of which will be ADA accessible. But the group has done it before. They’re known as good partners, and have the support of the Maine Department of Transportation and many other local partners including the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

A great way to experience the trail, especially in the winter, is a Full Moon Walk. These are held every full moon after sunset, with the next on Thursday, Feb. 1. Meet at either Southern Maine Health Care (head to the left as you enter the hospital grounds and look for Eastern Trail signage) or Scarborough Marsh, at the parking lot off Route 9/Pine Point Road at 6 p.m. – walks will be led from both locations and go off rain or shine.

It would sure be nice to finish Eastern Trail Alliance founder John Andrews’ dream and see the entire trail off-road, for all of Maine. Beyond the connection of Biddeford-Saco, the group is also working to extend south, from Kennebunk through the Berwicks. This extension would draw more users for running, walking, cycling, and commuting by bicycle, and would continue the outdoor recreation and economic growth engine that is the Eastern Trail. If you want to contribute to that dream, visit easterntrail.org. I’ll see you out on the trail.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an Independent State Representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show and is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Recycling Commission. Sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com, facebook.com/repgrohman or call Marty at home at 207-283-1476.

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