LEWISTON — Jonathan LaBonte wants to see a riverside path winding clear from Lewiston to Brunswick and see it happen while he’s still limber enough to walk and bike. Think 10 to 20 years.
This first mile, though, is a doozy.
As the city of Lewiston widens Lincoln Street downtown to make way for more commercial trucks, LaBonte, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust and its LA Trails, is pushing to have Lewiston build it “right” the first time. “Right” would include a mile-long parallel riverfront bike path.
City officials say they’re all for the idea. But there’s no money.
LaBonte insists there could be, if it were a priority.
City Administrator Ed Barrett said he’s had to lay people off. Really, there’s no money.
Undaunted, LaBonte insists the Lincoln Street project creates a perfect time for Lewiston to decide how pedestrian-friendly it wants to be, how high a priority it wants to place on people who live here vs. people who drive. In the face of all those "no’s," he’s still talking to the city and the state.
LaBonte isn’t alone in his wrangling. As bike-ped paths become more popular in Maine — last month 45 communities applied to compete for an anticipated $8 million in funds for just that — it isn’t always a smooth or easy ride.
In Lisbon, Steve Warren wants to see that town’s new Androscoggin River Trail built with even more river views.
“I let it go last time; I didn’t want to create too much controversy,” said Warren, a member of Lisbon’s Trail Commission. Not again.
Lincoln Street details
Dan Stewart is familiar with both projects. Bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator for the Maine Department of Transportation, he oversees the creation of about 15 miles of new sidewalks and 5 miles of new bike-ped paths every two years.
“It can really bring economic development and things like that to a community,” said Stewart, pointing to efforts such as a 7-mile path connecting Windham to Standish and a 7-mile stretch from Biddeford into Kennebunk that will get a bridge over the turnpike.
“You typically need a railroad corridor or a river corridor where there aren’t any landowners,” he said. “I would say the beauty of the potential bike-ped facility along Lincoln Street is there’s nothing between the road and the river.”
And, he said, it’s all owned by the city. Almost.
City Engineer Rick Burnham said Lewiston plans to widen Lincoln Street between Gully Brook Bridge and South Avenue, a 1.05-mile stretch, next spring. It’s currently 32 feet wide, and paved. It will become 40 feet wide, including a pair of 6-foot shoulders. The state plans to acquire, and knock down, the lone house on the river side, Burnham said.
The $2.9 million project is intended to move commercial traffic off Lisbon Street, which sees 24,000 vehicles a day, onto Lincoln, which sees one-third that volume.
Tied to it: a $450,000 project to widen the end of Locust Street onto Lincoln so trucks can turn more easily. For that, the old Avon Mill has to come down.
When it's done, Burnham said, the stretch between river and widened road will still have room for an 8-foot bike-ped path. The city commissioned a conceptual drawing in April 2009 to see what it would look like. His tentative construction estimate: $500,000.
“The plan we’re pursuing at the moment does include a bike path — we simply don’t have the money for it,” City Administrator Barrett said. “We would very much like to see jogging, biking, walking all along the river.”
LaBonte questions whether a bike-ped project would get permitted after the fact, something the city hasn't explored, according to Burnham.
“I’ve heard staff throw back at me, ‘How many people walk now?’” LaBonte said, countering with his own question, “How many people walk where there aren’t sidewalks?”
He’s at work on an application to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, looking to that group for help engaging people downtown in planning and prioritizing here.
In Portland, the Eastern Promenade Trail initially faced stiff resistance, LaBonte said. It was a trail to nowhere, would invite crime, would attract transients.
“(It’s) demonstrated to the community what’s possible along their waterfront,” he said. “What we do with the entire riverfront is important.”
Stewart, with the Department of Transportation, said he believes the city; the decision is a matter of funds. He is in talks with Lewiston to at least add sidewalks, in sections, to the current plan.
Paying for the view
In Lisbon, Warren, who has lived in the town 23 years, said he was happy when the town built the Paper Mill Trail almost 10 years ago, a popular, bike-ped path that follows the Sabattus River.
The next major project undertaken, Ricker Farm Trail, could also have followed the river, he said. “That would have been a beautiful scenic route, and at the time I didn’t push for that.”
It passes through farm fields instead, and that’s why Warren is speaking up. The new Androscoggin River Trail — a $1.6 million project for which the town approved a $320,000 bond last fall — will follow train tracks along the Androscoggin River. He’d like the trail to traverse the river side of the tracks for better views and he'd like to move some track; the majority of the Trail Commission, town officials and MDOT all favor the inland side of the tracks.
Lisbon Town Engineer Ryan Leighton said Warren’s proposal is too expensive, with additional safety and permitting issues.
“His desire is in the right place," Leighton said. "The feasibility of it is not there.” He added that some areas of the new trail will be elevated so walkers can see over the raised tracks — one of Warren’s prime concerns.
As designed, part of the 2.13-mile trail is through woods. They’ll need about a dozen landowners to sign easements. Construction is slated for next year.
“We don’t generally spend more money to make it a more pleasant experience,” Stewart said. “We agree with the (town). In this case, we have to say no.”
Warren said any type of trail has some benefit. Like LaBonte, he’d like to see Lisbon’s stretch clear into Topsham and Brunswick someday.
“I think the project should go ahead,” he said. “I just feel for $1.6 million, we ought to get the most we can out of it.”