A third section of the 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is on track to be built next year, and support and enthusiasm for the project is gaining momentum.
Last month at a press conference in Hardwick to distribute Northern Border Regional Commission grants, Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Patrick Leahy were among those singing the praises of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
The trail is being developed by VAST – the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. When finished, it will stretch from St. Johnsbury to Swanton. The old rail bed will be a snowmobile route across northern Vermont in the winter and open for non-motorized recreation the rest of the year.
Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman says the trail is spurring the recreational economy in his district, which is already home to two major ski areas.
"There’s a whole culture and group of businesses developing around the rail trail, and I think it’s awesome," says Westman.
Westman says the state has earmarked $1 million per year, over the next five years, for the trail from its bike and pedestrian grant program. He says the state has also upped its share of the matching grant from 50-50 to 80-20. That's good news for potential donors.
"It’s hard to find someplace where you can put 20 cents in and make 80 cents just like that," Westman says. "And in this case that will happen."
So when VAST was awarded a $200,000 Northern Border Regional Commission grant at that press event in Hardwick last month, VAST Executive Director Cindy Locke knew she has $1 million coming her way.
"We have received $200,000 which will help us with our match with the state to draw down $800,000 from the state," she says. "And this will help us to develop the section of the trail from Swanton to Sheldon next summer."
So far VAST has opened sections of trail at the east end, from St. Johnsbury to Danville, and in the middle, from Morristown to Cambridge. But a lot of time and money has been tied up in the permitting process.
In a controversial ruling, the state decided the trail fell under Act 250 jurisdiction. VAST is challenging that ruling before the federal Surface Transportation Board, saying federal law preempts Act 250 review.
But Westman says that dispute may soon be settled.
"It appears we’re on the verge of the agreement for Act 250 that will take the rail trail out of the Act 250 process," he says. "Which, to this point, they’ve spent between $500,000 and $600,000 on legal fees and the work to get through Act 250 for that trail."
The state is currently reviewing public comments on the settlement and could still alter or withdraw from the agreement. But if it stands, Locke says VAST will be able to move forward more quickly with trail construction. In addition to stabilizing the rail bed and laying down a staymat surface, there are 42 bridges to repair or replace along the trail.
"But we are still going through all the other state permitting that we have to," says Locke. "And it will say in the contract that if we did do something disastrously wrong as far as development goes, that we could still fall back into the original definition of Act 250."
But, Locke says, she doesn’t think that will be a problem.
"So far we have no strikes against us for any permitting lax on any of the sections we’ve opened," she says. "So we’re very confident that this will work out well for us."
VAST leases the rail corridor from the state. And Westman says he’s glad that both parties have found a way to work together to improve what, for years, has been an underutilized state asset.
"So VAST is really doing the state’s work, in many respects, on a trail resource that when it gets built, there may be a 20-year lease with VAST but the state owns the resource," Westman says. "So it is a state resource. And I think the partnership between VAST and the state now recognizes that partnership."
Once next summer’s construction is finished on the western end of the trail, nearly 45 miles of the rail trail will be open. VAST hopes to raise $3 million over the next three years — that, along with the state’s match, should be enough to finish the trail and cover its maintenance.