While many recreational activities have ground to a halt because of Covid-19, plans to fix up the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail are still rolling forward.
An original $2.8 million in state funds – proposed by the Scott administration before the Covid crisis emerged – has been approved as part of this year’s capital bill, and this summer crews are working on a section of the trail in Hardwick and another between Sheldon and Swanton.
The state is considering fixing up all of the trail’s 21 bridges starting next summer, said Cindy Locke, the executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, the snowmobile group that maintains the trail.
And there’s also talk of turning the trail into a state park.
“There’s great agreement among users and communities for the power of this,” said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, on Thursday. Snyder said he’s been asked to work with the Secretary of Administration on a plan to submit a plan to lawmakers in January. It’s too early to know how much land it would involve. “There might be campgrounds added along the way,” he said.
The nonprofit VAST and its associated LVRT group have fought hard to obtain state and federal funding to finish sections of the 93-mile-long trail, which runs between the Connecticut River Valley and the Champlain Valley. Just 33 miles of the trail are open now. It’s seen as an economic development opportunity for the rural communities it passes through.
The trail runs along the banks of the Lamoille River and through the spine of the Green Mountains, using a route created by the former St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad, which from 1877 until 1994 passed through five northern Vermont counties and 18 communities. Snowmobiles can use about 80 miles of the trail, which reaches an elevation of 1,400 feet near Joe’s Pond in Danville.
With an expected $220 million deficit in the state’s General Fund, lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott have indicated they will be looking for places to cut back on spending. Users of the trail had questioned whether the promised $2.8 million – which activates another $14 million in federal funds – would remain in place.
“We were questioning what might happen, because the Legislature switched into a Covid mindset,” said Locke. Lawmakers and the Scott administration have been intensely focused on responding to the pandemic, including creating grants programs for businesses that had to close or limit their operations after the governor declared a state of emergency in March.
But the trail money stayed in “because of the need for outdoor recreation, and the need for an economic boost, and just giving Vermonters and those who visit a safe and healthy place to recreate,” Locke said.
Work on the trail is expected to be completed by the end of summer 2023.
The trail fund is seen as a capital project, like building maintenance, said Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille and a longtime supporter of finishing the trail. Therefore, he said, funding to complete it doesn’t compete with the General Fund money that is being used for Covid-19 projects. Westman said it’s an important economic development project for northern Vermont.
“If you’re in my county, where the trail is pretty much complete from Jeffersonville to Morrisville, the trail is loaded with people,” he said. “It’s a way for families to enjoy the river, and it’s beautiful.”
He noted that rail trails in other states have become state parks. As a state park, Forest, Parks and Recreation would handle maintenance, and it would be covered by the state’s liability insurance. The state owns the railbed.
The Agency of Natural Resources controls 355,000 acres of state lands, including 55 developed state parks and large undeveloped parcels like Camels Hump State Park, said Snyder.
“Once it’s built, it becomes an operating issue, and we’re probably better suited to manage and operate a rail trail,” said Snyder. “We’re good at managing recreational assets.”