ELLSWORTH, Maine — A new 1.3-mile-long paved path through central Ellsworth may not be officially opened but workers are putting on the finishing touches, giving bicyclists and pedestrians an alternate way to get from the Ellsworth Falls area to downtown.
And according to a state official, work on a project that might end up connecting the new path with the Down East Sunrise Trail could begin within a year.
The paved path in Ellsworth runs parallel to the rail corridor through the city, from where Routes 179 and 180 branch off Route 1 near the Union River to Birch Avenue, a few blocks from Main Street. The Maine Department of Transportation built the path and erected a chain link fence between it and the adjacent train tracks, which are used by Downeast Scenic Railroad from late spring through fall, for approximately $950,000. The path will be maintained by the city of Ellsworth, according to DOT officials.
Michele Gagnon, Ellsworth’s city planner, said Thursday that motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles are not allowed on the path, which runs in front of Ellsworth High School. She said the city does not plan to plow the path this winter so that cross-country skiers or snowshoers can use it.
Dan Stewart, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for DOT, said Thursday that the new path might connect to the Down East Sunrise Trail within a few years.
The state is moving forward with plans to extend the Down East Sunrise Trail into Ellsworth, he said. The 85-mile multiuse trail extends from Washington Junction in the town of Hancock, approximately two miles east of downtown Ellsworth, to Ayers Junction in the Washington County town of Pembroke. Like the new path in Ellsworth, the extended Down East Sunrise Trail would be built next to the tracks used by Downeast Scenic Railroad, which uses the rail yard at Washington Junction as its operation base.
Where in Ellsworth the trail would end, Stewart said, has not been determined but DOT hopes to extend it all the way to Main Street, a few blocks from the southern end of the new paved path on Birch Avenue.
There are some choke points in the state-owned rail corridor in Ellsworth, such as near the Maine Community Foundation office behind Cadillac Mountain Sports, where it may be difficult to construct a trail next to the rail line, Stewart said, but the state would like to have the new eastern end of the trail as close to downtown Ellsworth as possible.
By extending the trail into Ellsworth, Stewart said, the city hopefully would enjoy some of the economic benefits that businesses adjacent to the Down East Sunrise Trail have received. He said that many trailside restaurant, store and lodging owners in Washington County and eastern Hancock County have told DOT that they’ve been noticeably busier since sections of the trail first opened in 2009.
“It’s been a huge economic benefit to the two counties,” Stewart said. “It’s been an enormous asset.”
Stewart said DOT plans to begin the design phase of the trail extension project this fall and that ground work on extending the trail could begin as early as the fall of 2012. He said the total cost estimate for both the design and build phases of the trail extension is $1.2 million.
Jim Fisher, a planner with the Hancock County Planning Commission, said Thursday that he has been conducting a study for DOT of where in Ellsworth a new access point for the extended Down East Sunrise Trail might be located. The facility might include a boarding site for the scenic railroad, some parking for trail users, a tourist information center and a terminal for bus lines to pick up and drop off passengers, he said.
“The preferred site is where Blue Seal Feeds is located,” Fisher said. Blue Seal Feeds is located behind Key Bank and Merrill Furniture on High Street.
Fisher said there likely is enough space on the property for all the features envisioned by planners, with the possible exception of having ample parking for snowmobile or ATV trailers.
Snowmobiles and ATVs are allowed on the Down East Sunrise Trail.
The existing parking lot at Washington Junction still would be key to making sure there is enough parking in the area to accommodate those trail users, he said.
But Fisher said that how many features the facility might have likely would depend on how much money could be raised to help pay for it. He also said that it is not clear that the Blue Seal Feeds property will be available to be developed into a new rail and trail access point.
According to Gagnon, the city is hoping to find a way to connect the southern end of the new paved bicycle and walking path to the north side of Main Street, which would help path users get to the Down East Sunrise Trail. The city also is looking into other bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly connections at the other end of the path, she said.
Specific plans have not been developed, according to the city planner, but Ellsworth officials envision the northern end of the path connecting to Shore Road, a popular walking route that runs along the shore of the Union River and Leonard Lake on the west side of Route 1A. She said the city has been looking into ways to erect a pedestrian and snowmobile bridge across the Union River from Shore Road to Infant Street, which connects to Christian Ridge Road and Grant Street.
“Those are long-term goals,” Gagnon said. “It has so much possibilities.”
For information, visit the Hancock County Planning Commission Web page on the project at http://www.hcpcme.org/ellsworth/STAR/index.htm.