LISBON — Walking, biking, horseback riding and snowmobiling along the Androscoggin River from Topsham, through Lisbon Falls, Lisbon and on into Lewiston may become a reality some day.
Whether that happens, Lisbon town councilors learned Tuesday night, depends mostly on money, interest of the townspeople, availability of federal and state grants, and, perhaps some support from the private sector.
A group of Bates College students presented a summary of their findings on the topic as part of their environmental studies course. This is the second time Economic and Community Development Director Scott Benson has enlisted the help of Bates students in a research project.
“I asked them to look into this dormant rail line,” Benson told the council, referring to the line that is owned by Pan Am Railways that starts at the Topsham line and extends from the Sabattus boat launch into Lewiston.
Benson said he wanted the students to look into whether a resumption of freight service is feasible or whether it could be a “rail to trail” project: removing the tracks to provide a multi-use trail.
The students reported that the rail to trail movement began in the mid-1960s, with more than 1,600 such trails throughout the country. In addition to connecting towns and cities, the trails have the potential to promote the economy, bringing business to retail shops and restaurants along the way.
In their research, the students studied the development of the 87-mile long Downeast Sunrise Trail which connects Calais to Ellsworth. Funding for that project came from a variety of sources, including Camden National Bank, Bangor Hydro, Maine DOT, and funds raised from ATV and snowmobile activities.
Benson said he asked the students to get input from state and local officials, as well as the private sector, on the potential for restoring freight service along the line. One of the businesses they approached, Dingley Press, said they wouldn’t use a freight line, but supported the idea of a multi-use trail as a benefit to their employees.
The students sent out 600 email surveys to residents and learned that 55 percent supported the rail to trail idea, while 27 percent supported the restoration of freight service. Asked if the residents thought a multiuse trail would benefit Lisbon, 82 percent said yes.
Newly elected Councilor Dillon Pesce asked how much the Ellsworth trail cost. Students said they hadn’t researched that, but the information would be included in their final report to the council. Benson said some of the money for the project came from recycling the rails that were taken up.
Fern Larochelle, who was re-elected chairman of the council Tuesday, said the students “had picked a very hot topic.”
“There have been several nonprofits that have shown an interest in this. I hope anyone who has an interest in this will step forward.”
Larochelle thanked the students for their work, adding, “We would like to bring you in whenever we need you.”