BATH, Maine — If there’s a core value necessary in bringing a grand-scale community project from idea to reality, it’s perseverance.
That’s a lesson Jim Upham learned early in his career as a planner for the city of Bangor, which in the late 1970s was still dreaming of the waterfront revival that has finally taken place in recent years. Now on the verge of retirement as Bath’s planning director for the past 15 years, Upham has another dream: to extend an existing bicycle and pedestrian path in Brunswick to the Kennebec River in Bath.
“I learned a long time ago that projects get done if people stay with them long enough,” said Upham, 65, who retires at the end of this month. “As with all other things, it takes some interest. You need to keep the vision out there as a project that needs to be done.”
The 2.4-mile Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path, which runs in a well-manicured swath of greenspace between Route 1 and the river, is used year-round by residents of the area who reach it from Industry Road near downtown Brunswick, Elm Street in Topsham or at the eastern end of Grover Lane near Brunswick’s Cooks Corner.
“It has been strongly embraced by the community,” said Tom Farrell, Brunswick’s director of parks and recreation. “The numbers speak for themselves by the people who use it 365 days a year. It goes a long way toward helping people take part in a more active lifestyle.”
The popularity of the trail, which opened in 1998, inspired some, including Upham, to envision the day when the trail could connect through the town of West Bath to Bath. Though that goal and its price tag of $10 million or more seem years or decades from completion, work is already under way within Bath city limits. Now under construction is a bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfare that will run from the outskirts of busy Congress Avenue — where civil engineers have recommended connecting to the Brunswick bike path, if it ever is extended — to Bath’s Waterfront Park.
“It’s all part of a bigger plan,” said Upham. “You work on the ends first, then you tackle the middle.”
The biggest challenge is the cost, though a steady trickle of federal funding beginning in 1991 has helped.
An act of Congress earmarked a certain percentage of gas tax revenues to states for nonmotorized transportation systems. In Maine, it typically amounts to more than $3 million a year, which is about 1 percent of the state’s federal transportation revenues.
Dan Stewart, the Maine Department of Transportation’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, said many of the state’s most popular trails can be traced back to the approximately $60 million that has flowed to Maine over the years from the federal program. But the clamor for that cash far outpaces the available funds; in 2010 there were $36 million worth of applications and about $8 million to distribute. In most cases, the grants require local matches of up to 20 percent.
“It does take time, but people have cared enough in a lot of locations throughout the state to put in the effort, the time and their financial resources,” said Stewart. “It takes longer than people want because you’re changing a community and there are a lot of details when it comes to making a project a reality.”
Among the trails in Maine that have benefited from the federal transportation funds are the Brunswick path; the Eastern Trail, which is almost complete from Portland to Kennebunk with a new bridge debuting later this month over the Maine Turnpike; the Mountain Division Trail from Gorham to Westbrook; a trail system between Lisbon and Lisbon Falls; and an almost-complete bicycle-pedestrian thoroughfare in Millinocket. The federal money also has helped build numerous sidewalks in communities across the state, including the ones through the city of Bath which someday might be part of the link between the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers.
“These facilities are being built section by section as funds come in,” said Stewart, who said the connection from Brunswick to Bath is “a viable project that has a good chance of getting funding through private and federal sources.”
Whenever it happens, Upham knows he won’t be as intimately involved as he has been in the past. For his part, he’ll leave behind cabinets full of feasibility studies, engineering diagrams and maps that show every inch of the proposed trail’s route from Brunswick to the City of Ships as a bright yellow line
“This whole idea of improving communities is what I’ve been interested in since the 1960s,” said Upham with an uncharacteristic mist in his eyes. “It’s a little bit sad that I’m going to be done working on projects like these.”