Not long ago, it seemed that the portion of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor inside the city limits would either make a comeback as a route for excursion rail service, or be converted to a recreational trail. But not both.

Brooks Preservation Society’s efforts to run rail excursions over the final leg of the 33-mile Burnham to Belfast rail line — from Veterans’ Memorial Bridge to the former Front Street terminus — were gathering steam. Meanwhile, Coastal Mountains Land Trust appeared to be equally invested in a proposal that would convert the railway to a hiking and biking trail. The Passagassawakeag Greenway, as it was dubbed, had the potential to connect as many as five of the conservancy’s upriver land holdings to downtown Belfast.

The partisans lined up and after several drawn-out public hearings and heated debate, the Council reached a split decision, throwing the financial backing of the city behind the…


What actually happened was much different — a pleasant surprise and a nice reprieve from the hard-knocks democracy that usually comes with competing interests.

City officials struck a deal to buy the rail corridor in partnership with CMLT. Since then, both parties have been outspoken that any redevelopment of the rail corridor should include both rail and trail uses. The property has yet to change hands, but after a strong showing of public support this week, and little opposition, it would be surprising if the Council did not give final approval to the deal before the seller’s July 1 deadline.

Several things remain unknown, but the critical pieces of the deal appear to be in place. The city has an option to buy the 3.5-mile segment of the rail corridor for $200,000 — a half-million less than the asking price — and CMLT has agreed to contribute up to $100,000 to the purchase. Further, CMLT Executive Director Scott Dickerson said this week that he intended to ask his board of directors for authorization to pay some portion of the permitting, engineering and construction costs of the trail.

CMLT has a long and impressive record of conserving land in Midcoast Maine for public use, and we have no reason to doubt that the organization will make good on its end of the bargain. In fact, we can’t think of a better group to lead such an effort.

What we don’t know is how much it will cost to build a path adjacent to the railway, and how much of that expense will be shouldered by taxpayers. City Manager Joe Slocum has indicated that he believes the purchase of the rail corridor comes with a commitment to develop the land. We agree, and thanks to CMLT’s pledged contribution, Slocum’s negotiation, and likewise, Unity Property Management’s willingness to lower the price, taxpayers have a $600,000 head start on a piece of public works that, like others of the city’s parks, will pay dividends for decades, maybe centuries, to come.

Access to the trail, both for pedestrians and bicyclists heading out of town from Belfast and for the railroad coming into downtown, will be critical, but remains one of the least-resolved aspects of both the rail and trail efforts. Penobscot McCrum owns a critical portion of the rail corridor between the Route 1 bridge and the footbridge. Further south, the fate of the former Stinson property will inevitably affect how pedestrian and rail traffic enter the city. The railway also overlaps the city’s proposed coastal walkway, a promenade that aims to connect the footbridge to Steamboat Landing, and while the Council recently added the railroad to a call for proposals for a downtown master plan, the logistics seem more prickly than the tidy vision of rails and trails running in parallel through the woods further up the track.

The City Council should not hesitate to buy the rail corridor and should also set aside money for initial construction costs before signing off on the coming year’s budget. Having a hiking and biking trail up the Passy and excursion rail service from downtown Belfast to points west are both great ideas. Thanks to all those involved, we may not have to choose.