On Town Meeting Day, four central Vermont communities allocated money to build a recreational bridge over the Winooski River. It's a project of the Cross Vermont Trail Association, which has been working to create a recreational trail network across central Vermont since the early 1990s.
Most of the association's work involves picks, shovels and volunteers. It’s slow-going, and relatively low-budget, trail building.
But now the association is getting ready to embark on what it’s calling its keystone project. It’s a 2-mile stretch of trail between Montpelier and East Montpelier. It will connect with the planned Montpelier bike path to the west, and get cyclists off of Route 2 to the east. And in the middle is a 200-foot bridge over the Winooski River.
Greg Western, executive director of the nonprofit, says, "We're super close to being able to go forward with more work alongside Route 2, the second-most expensive part of the project. And then, if everything goes as we expect it will, we would be ready a year from now … to bid the Winooski bridge part of the project."
The bridge will be built behind the Winooski Hydro dam in East Montpelier, where a railroad bridge once spanned the river. Most of the project will be covered by $1.3 million in federal grants. But a quarter-million dollars needs to be raised locally. The city of Montpelier offered up $1 per resident toward the bridge, if other municipalities that benefit from the project would do the same.
So for the first time, the association sought and received Town Meeting Day appropriations in East Montpelier, Plainfield, Calais and Worcester. And next year it plans to ask Middlesex to pitch in. Berlin has already pledged to contribute.
Rose Paul collected signatures to have the question put on her Town Meeting warning in Plainfield, and she says "it passed in flying fashion."
Paul says she also got some positive feedback from the meeting floor. She recalls, "Someone else spoke up and said that he saw the value in this bridge project as promoting tourism, which would be good for downtown businesses."
The Cross Vermont Trail Association strives to make universally accessible trails. It does that by working with towns to improve and link existing trails. Western says the grand vision is a network of local trails that stretches the width of Vermont from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain. He likens the group's approach to a patchwork quilt.
"Every town, basically, has a group of people who are into trails in their town, such as in the town forest or the trails in the woods behind the school," says Western. "Let’s work together with all these community groups to promote their trails, to improve their trails, with the ultimate goal of connecting them together into a connected statewide network."
Western says the group took an unusual first step toward that goal.
"When they first looked at that statewide route in the '90s, they did something super rare in the world, which is, they said, ‘What’s the hardest part? Let’s do that first.’”
They decided the hardest part would be finding a way across Interstate 91 in Newbury. So they engineered an underpass, which was built in 2003. And the next hardest part?
"The second-hardest part was how to get through this narrow, built-up valley in East Montpelier, where the Winooski River and Route 2 … completely fill the river valley," he says. "And then there’s really steep bluffs on either side. How do you get through?"
That question was answered in the engineering phase of the project. And a set of trails was added up one of those bluffs to connect with existing cross country trails at U32 High School.
Western says that’s what the Cross Vermont Trail is all about – connecting communities and accessing their hidden gems.
"Part of our motivation for the trail is to make a sustainable, accessible, environmentally responsible trail to give people easy access to kind of cool, natural places that are nearby," says Western. "So you don't have to make a big special trip to go for a walk along the river."
Once the bridge project is finished, Western says he's looking forward to getting back to working with picks, shovels and volunteers.