Caribou and surrounding towns are petitioning the Maine DOT to form a council that will study potential recreational trail options for an inactive section of the Maine Northern Railroad, owned by the DOT. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — What began as Caribou’s effort to revitalize its riverfront is expanding into a group of Aroostook communities that want to improve all of their economies by building an interconnected trail system on 33 miles of inactive railroad land.

Caribou is designating regions along the Aroostook River for certain types of economic development, such as shops, restaurants and walking and bike trails as part of changes to its zoning regulations. The railbed trails could connect to a larger ATV and snowmobile trail system, attracting more tourists and local visitors to Caribou and neighboring towns, according to those involved in the effort.

But in order to better connect trails between Caribou, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield and Limestone, officials from those communities need to advocate for changes at the state level.

The Maine Department of Transportation owns the Maine Northern Railroad, which includes active and inactive railbeds in Aroostook. Thirty-three miles of inactive rails extend from Maysville Street in Presque Isle to the Loring Development Authority in Limestone.

Regular rail service has not been offered past Maysville Street for two years or to Caribou for a decade. Rail service has not been operational between Fort Fairfield and Limestone since the mid-1990s, according to Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison.

Murchison told Caribou councilors Monday night that he researched the inactive railroad sections after conversations with the city’s Riverfront Renaissance Committee members.

“We realized that our riverfront area has things in common with other communities in central Aroostook,” Murchison said, referring to existing snowmobile and ATV trails.

To explore whether new recreational trails or a combination of trails and active railroads is economically feasible for the region, municipal and business officials from Caribou, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield and Limestone are seeking to form a Rail Corridor Use Advisory Council.

So far Caribou and Presque Isle city councilors have formally agreed to be part of the advisory group and send letters of support to the DOT. They will also be included in Caribou’s petition to the DOT, which will advocate forming the reuse advisory council.

The Fort Fairfield Town Council and Limestone Selectboard are expected to vote this month on whether to join the advisory council, which will work with the DOT to study whether the 33 miles of railroad could be revitalized for rail service, become part of a multi-use trail and rail system or utilized through a “rails to trails” project.

That study could take up to nine months, Murchison noted.

A “rails to trails” project advocates for the construction of new recreational trails and the preservation of separate active rail corridors for commuter trains, Amtrak and/or freight services, according to the Maine Trail Coalition.

The group will also propose changes to laws that regulate the use of railroads in Maine.

LD 1133: An Act to Amend the Transportation Laws passed in 2021 requires that the Legislature approve any proposed railroad track removal or non rail use of railbeds. It also specifies that any reuse of railroads be considered temporary and that the corridors be preserved for future rail service.

Any approved amendments to LD 1133 would give Caribou, Presque Isle, Limestone and Fort Fairfield permission to enact reuse plans based on the report they submit to DOT resulting from the nine-month study.

Presque Isle’s and Caribou’s city councils voted unanimously to join the advisory council and praised the effort as a step toward greater economic prosperity for the central Aroostook region.

“This [railroad reuse] concept aligns with Presque Isle’s goals of increasing recreational opportunities and participating in regional efforts,” Town Manager Martin Puckett said.

Caribou councilors expressed support for the advisory council but also voiced concerns on the future of the railroad system.

Earlier this winter, rail service was used to transport more than 3,000 tons of Aroostook potatoes from Van Buren for fries, chips and other food products. At the time, local farmers said that railroad infrastructure improvements could make that form of shipping more possible in future years.

Councilor John Morrill recalled the story of those potatoes and said that perhaps Caribou should not be so quick to replace rail lines.

“I get the recreational trails aspect, but I wonder if we’re going to lose an asset that may be important down the road,” Morrill said.

Any recreational trails that Caribou and other communities pursue will be considered part of a temporary reuse plan for the railroad land because of the state protections for railbeds, Murchison said.

Murchison noted that despite the once active status of those railroads, all communities he has spoken to are excited about the land’s reuse potential. In Caribou, these efforts could connect the riverfront to the larger community.

“If we could have a trail system that brings people into our downtown district, that would be overwhelmingly positive for our community,” Murchison said.