Railroad and walkway on slow-motion collision course
Belfast — A city effort to build a waterfront pedestrian and bicycle promenade on a portion of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake railway appears to be on a slow-motion collision course with the expansion of the Brooks Preservation Society's rail excursion plans, though, to date, neither group seems overly concerned about the other.
BPS Executive Director Joe Feero addressed the Belfast City Council, Nov. 17 to announce an upcoming rail excursion from Brooks to the Route 1 bridge in Belfast. Last month, the group gained access to the final three miles of the planned route, adding to the 30 miles of track - from Burnham Junction to Waldo - for which it has prior lease agreements.
The furthest southern reach for BPS excursions does not allow for loading and unloading passengers, and the final 1,500 feet of track, leading to the old Belfast terminus, traverses property owned by Penobscot McCrum and the city of Belfast.
Responding via e-mail, Feero said BPS is "working with [Penobscot McCrum owner, Jay] McCrum to come to an agreement to utilize the segment of track he owns."
McCrum recently told VillageSoup he thought his role was secondary to any permissions granted by the city of Belfast.
During the same Nov. 17 meeting at which Feero appeared, the Council named the development of the waterfront walk as a high priority.
"I think it's a great idea, and I think we should pursue it as quickly as possible," said Ward 3 Councilor Eric Sanders. Ward 2 Councilor Roger Lee echoed Sanders' view, "This needs to get done," he said. "It's really important to the economy. It's important to residents."
Last December the city won a $250,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation for the waterfront walkway. The city has set aside $200,000 in matching funds for the project.
City Manager Joe Slocum presented a long list of potential stakeholders, including three city committees and businesses in the area. But Ward 4 Councilor Mike Hurley cautioned that the project might get bogged down if every stakeholder is asked to weigh in.
"I'm concerned that if we're going to have a hundred people and were going to be having meetings and it's, like, great, we'll do it next year," he said, adding that all he has heard from people is "Why hasn't this been done."
The Council resolved to hire engineer Olver and Associates, and to hold a "scoping session" with the Parks and Recreation, Pedestrian Hiking and Biking, and Harbor Committees.
Lee expressed concern that the walkway planning be overseen by a group with an eye to aesthetics. Several councilors, including Lee, said they didn't want the design to have a kitschy, seaport feel.
The northern end of the walkway, which passes through the former Stinson Seafood property to the footbridge, would cover the old rail bed. While most of the waterfront walk would likely be paved, the unknown status of the Stinson property led City Planner Wayne Marshall to recommend a temporary stone dust surface. Marshall has said the city would consider removing the rails to help fund the project.
The Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad operated out of Belfast from 1870 until the early 2000s with sporadic excursion service in the final years. The last piece of rolling stock in Belfast - a decommissioned locomotive - was scrapped in 2008. Other pieces of the railroad have been sold or are in the possession of BPS. This summer, BPS began running regular excursions along portions of the rail corridor from Burnham Junction to the Waldo/Belfast town line.
Feero and other rail proponents have portrayed the excursions as a potential economic driver for Belfast.
"The economic impact of the railroad and other attractions to the city of Belfast is important to us," said Feero, via e-mail. "Our goal has been, and will continue to be to return passenger service (tourist) to the city of Belfast."
Feero said BPS plans to ask the city in December for use of rail from the city boundary near Pierce Street, south to the boundary of the Stinson development property.
"There should be enough width to accommodate both interests in this area," he said.
Feero said BPS did not plan to ask the city for money, and had not ruled out the possibility of terminating beyond the Stinson property.
Hurley, speaking after the Council meeting, said he did not see a future for rail excursions running out of Belfast. A light-rail commuter use could make sense in the future, he said, "but as a seat-of-its-pants tourist rail, it's a tough row to hoe."