Vermont, and more precisely, its elected representatives, are ignoring a relatively inexpensive project that could have huge economic impact and significant health benefits for northern Vermont. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT), once its full 95 miles are completed, could be the crown jewel of the Vermont State park system, attracting bikers from all over the world. Unfortunately, the LVRT is only one third complete and its progress has come to a virtual standstill. At the current rate of progress, it will take 15 years to complete the trail (and could take longer as with each year, existing infrastructure, such as bridge piers, deteriorate further, driving up costs). This is the case despite the fact that the federal government will match any money spent by the State and or charitable donations on a four-to-one basis, meaning the State would only have to raise three million of the project’s remaining 15 million dollar cost. This is the equivalent of one roundabout a year over three years (to date all State funding has come out of the VTrans budget). Every politician asked about the LVRT, including the Governor, claims to enthusiastically support the LVRT and to date I am not aware of a single state representative or state senator that opposes it. Yet when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is, their enthusiasm evaporates. Of the approximately 8 million dollars spent on the LVRT to date, the State has contributed a paltry $75,000 to date and has only committed $50,000 to the project for 2020.
This reluctance to fund the project is even harder to understand when there is ample evidence that the LVRT will have a huge economic impact on an economically challenged part of the State. An almost perfect case study of what completion of the LVRT could mean to Vermont is located just to the north of us in Quebec. The Petit Train du Nord (Petit Train) is a 110 mile rail trail. The Petit Train runs from St. Jerome, located an hour west of Montreal, to Mount Laurier. People travel from all over the world to ride the Petit Train, spending anywhere from two to five days riding from one end to the other.
The Petit Train is operated by a non-profit that oversees the trail’s maintenance and repairs. The Petit Train estimates it attracts one million users a year and generates 15 million dollars in revenues. The user breakdown is 45 percent local users, 30 percent persons who live more than 30 miles from the trail but do not stay overnight, and 25 percent tourists who spend at least one night in the area. An obvious initial reaction is that Vermont cannot aspire to this level of use as the LVRT is not located near a major urban center like Montreal. However, Swanton, the northern trailhead of the LVRT, is only 60 miles from downtown Montreal, the same distance as the St. Jerome, southern trailhead of the Petit Train, and Swanton is probably easier to get to.
This economic impact assessment is entirely consistent with a local economic impact study done on the Burlington bike path and Colchester Causeway in 2010 using 2008 user data. That study estimated that there were 100,000 users annually and that they generated between one and two and a half million dollars in revenue. The Causeway trail is a significant tourist attraction, but not necessarily a stand-alone destination as for most visitors, it occupies half a day at most, as opposed to the four or five days one would spend riding a completed LVRT. The Causeway study is based on ten-year old data and it is very likely that the number of users has increased over the intervening years as evidenced by the fact that bike ferry reported 14,000 riders this year, and only a small percentage of Causeway riders take the ferry. According to VAST’s best estimate, the LVRT already attracts 100,000 users annually.