by Mickey Smith
After several years of discussion that at one point had the project applicants saying no to the Act 250 process, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail has won the necessary land use permit that will allow construction to begin on 44 miles of the trail across northern Vermont along the discontinued railbed.
“This is exciting news,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “The trail across some of the most beautiful terrain in Vermont will be a fantastic recreational asset while strengthening Vermont’s economy.”
He noted the project has been dragging along and the Act 250 permit is a significant boost to getting the work on the trail started.
Sanders secured a $5.2 million grant for the trail in 2005, but the project has been on hold during an environmental review process. The project has also received about $250,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced they will cover 90% of costs from damage to the trail caused by two devastating storms in 2011. The spring flooding and Tropical Storm Irene that year caused an estimated $650,000 in damage.
“In the short term, construction of the trail will create badly needed jobs in a part of our state hit hard by this terrible recession,” the senator said. “Once built, the trail will be a huge attraction for tourists who come to Vermont in the winter to snowmobile or ski, or in the summer to bike and hike. These tourists will stay in our hotels and inns, eat in local restaurants, visit other Vermont attractions and buy Vermont products.”
Sanders said the trail will help with Vermont's ecotourism movement, something he said could be a “big deal” for Vermont if promoted well.
The long-awaited permit clears the way for work on the first of three phases of construction on what eventually will be a 93-mile trail from Swanton to St. Johnsbury along the former Lamoille Valley Railroad.
According to a press release from Senator Sanders' office, phase 1 will include work on stretches of trail from St. Johnsbury to Danville, a leg linking Morristown, Hyde Park, Johnson and Cambridge, and a section of trail from Sheldon through Highgate and on to Swanton.
Phase 2 would include sections of trail from Greensboro to Morrisville, and Cambridge Junction to Sheldon. The final section, Greensboro Bend to Danville would be completed in phase 3. Phase 1 could start as early as 2013.
The railway served as the primary east-west transportation corridor in the northern part of the state from 1877 until it closed in 1994. The Vermont Agency of Transportation holds the right-of-way along the route, and the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers won state approval to convert the railway into a four-season recreational trail in 2003, and to act as managers of the trail system.
When completed, the longest rail trail in New England will offer services for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and others.