Passenger Rail And An Aerial Tram: A Winning Vision For A Sustainable Montpelier

Jan 20, 2017

Net Zero Vermont has announced a winner for its Montpelier 2030 Design Competition. Entrants were tasked with creating a sustainable vision for the capital city that could be achieved in the next 13 years. 

The year 2030 is significant, because the city has set a goal to be carbon neutral by then.

This month the public got a chance to vote among five finalists in the international contest. A locally-headquartered group of designers and architects called Team Bridges won the popular vote, and the $10,000 prize.

All five finalists gave presentations to an auditorium of onlookers two weeks ago. Michael Rushman, of Cabot, spoke for Team Bridges. Rushman says his team operated on the premise that Montpelier isn’t an island, and any discussion of its future must consider the bigger picture.

"We see it as a holistic city shaped by natural forces and, maybe most importantly, we see that city as an integral part of a five-town capital corridor that’s linked by existing rail lines," says Rushman.

Rushman adds that running along the spine of that five-town corridor are the railroad and the Winooski River.

Michael Rushman, of Cabot, presenting for Team Bridges.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"The capital corridor, consisting of Waterbury, Middlesex, Montpelier, Berlin and Barre, has over 26,000 residents, over 23,000 jobs and is host to a million-and-a-half square feet of state facilities, nearly half of which are located outside Montpelier," he says.

A key component of the Team Bridges proposal is revitalizing passenger rail service throughout the corridor. City Planner Mike Miller says introducing passenger service would be challenging, but an interesting idea to explore for at least part of the route.

"We do have an underused rail line," says Miller. "It is used for freight. It would take a lot of money to upgrade that to be able to use for passenger service, but it’s an idea we’ve had here in town because we think it would be a great opportunity to be able to connect Barre City and Montpelier."

An outline of the Team Bridges plan.
Credit Team Bridges

In his presentation, Rushman says the challenge for Montpelier and Barre, in particular, is to reverse a 50-year trend.

"A half-century of rural sprawl has not only robbed these communities of potential residents, it’s resulted in much higher fossil fuel usage, wasting of time and money on long-distance commuting and a lack of affordable housing," he says.

As for a passenger rail route north of Montpelier Junction, Miller says there would be an additional complication.

"I think connecting to Waterbury would be more challenging because it gets onto the Amtrak line," says Miller.
Passenger rail isn’t the only transportation solution proposed by Team Bridges. It also pitched new shuttle bus routes, a streetcar line, a pedestrian and bike path and an aerial tram from downtown up the hill to the National Life office building.

Miller says the tram idea is actually something the city addresses in its economic development strategic plan.

Lt. Governor David Zuckerman looks at the program and ballot handed out at the finalists' presentations January 7.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"We’ve got a lot of people that work up at National Life," says Miller, "and going down what’s called the ‘goat path’ is challenging, especially in winter, and we think it would be a good tourist draw. It could go up the hill to, potentially, a hotel on the hill that would be a tourist destination. That people would come just to go and visit the tram because you can see Camel’s Hump and a lot of other destinations from there."

In addition to transportation alternatives, the winning proposal calls for over 2,000 new housing units, public art, parks and a year-round farmers market. Miller says the city will be taking a closer look at elements like those, from all five of the contest finalists.

Over 700 ballots were cast, both in person and online, to choose the contest winner
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"There are a number of solutions, I think, that we can draw inspiration from and kind of see – as we work on our master plan here in the city – integrating some of these ideas back into our new plan," he says.

Miller says he’s been impressed with the high level of public interest in the design competition. Over 700 votes were cast this month in the final round of the contest.