This spring a new section of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is open for year-round use. But the operator of the trail is short of funds, and needs to raise money privately to complete the project.
When the snow melted this spring, a 17-mile section of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail officially opened for cyclists, pedestrians and other non-motorized users. The section of the trail stretches between Cambridge Junction and Morrisville. It’s the second section of trail to open up for year-round use. The other piece is an 11-mile stretch between West Danville and St. Johnsbury.
VAST, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, is in charge of the trail. It’s been open for snowmobiling for years, with a base of chunky granite ballast. But now the trail is covered with a finely ground gravel product called "sta-mat," which is locally sourced and produced.
VAST Executive Director Cindy Locke says the sta-mat is designed to self-repair ruts and gouges when it rains. And, she says, it’s much more bicycle-friendly than the underlying rocks.
"It’s really hard to ride a bike on this big granite ballast," says Locke. "I know people who have done it. Actually, I’ve tried it. You feel like a piece of popcorn in a popcorn machine."
But now that a more wheel-friendly surface is down, Locke says all sorts of people are taking to this part of the trail, including recreational cyclists, parents pushing strollers and bike commuters.
On a wooded section of trail in Johnson, we met up with Waterville resident Elaine Thomas, biking with a friend from Milton. She says she’s already made a habit of biking the trail several times a week, and she’s even brought her twin grandchildren out to teach them to ride on the flat, smooth trail. Thomas says she likes the variety in the rail trail’s scenery.
"It’s different daily," says Thomas. "There's new flowers starting to bloom each day. And I like the way there's a few corners in it and you see something different. And I like the woods and the river. I'm not so happy about going across the cornfields, but that adds to the variety."
When finished, the trail will stretch 93 miles from Swanton to St. Johnsbury. And Locke has high expectations.
"It will be the longest rail trail in New England when it's finished," she says, "and I think it will be the top four-season recreation destination."
The Lamoille Valley Railroad’s east-west passage traversed 18 communities in five counties. The railroad began operating in 1877, but use dwindled and the railway fell into disrepair by the end of the 20th century. In the 1990s a series of major floods took out bridges and low-lying sections of the rail bed.
Today VAST is looking to the towns along the line to help with routine maintenance like mowing, and to provide trailheads and some signage.
The state controls the railway and has leased the right-of-way to VAST. Sen. Bernie Sanders secured federal transportation funds to convert rails to trail.
"Originally Sen. Sanders was able to get us a federal earmark to help us with the trail," says Locke. "And at that time we thought that we would have the amount of money that was needed to complete the trail, which was nearly $6 million. That was about nine years ago, and it was before we thought we had to go through Act 250."
Several years and a million dollars later, VAST lost its fight to keep the rail trail out of Act 250 jurisdiction. And now, VAST estimates it needs to raise about $10 million more to complete the work. As Locke explains, the land management regulations and construction delays have jacked up the project costs. There's also added expenses involved in meeting federal highway construction mandates due to the federal earmark.
Locke says the capital campaign to raise that money will kick off next month. In the meantime, VAST has just over a million dollars on hand. It plans to spend those funds for emergency repair of a large bridge in Cambridge Junction.
"The state deemed that it was about ready to fall into the water, which is was, just about a month ago," she explains. "So the state stepped in to help, and they have actually pulled the spans off the top of the bridge and repaired the piers. And VAST will now go in and finish the work that needs to be done to put the spans back on and then get it ready ... for people on bicycles and strollers and things like that."
Next year, VAST plans to open another 11 miles of trail, from Sheldon to Swanton.