There are few
sections of rail-trail more remarkable than the 3.5-mile causeway that arcs
across Lake Champlain along the Island Line Rail Trail in Vermont. Every year,
thousands of riders and hikers cross the narrow bridge of mottled marble and
rock built by the Rutland Railroad at the beginning of the 20th century. Out in
the middle of the lake, warblers and kingfishers flit past, the lake trout and
walleye stir. To the east, the Green Mountains; to the west, the Adirondacks.
But just as this
famous rail-trail is made all the more spectacular by its precarious setting,
so too is it exposed to the same raw natural elements that make it such a
year, heavy snowfall followed by record rainfall caused flooding along the
shores of Lake Champlain, damaging homes and
businesses and sparking requests for emergency aid relief for nearby farmers
and property owners. The lake rose to its highest point in history, 103.2 feet--seven feet higher than the average summertime lake level, with the swollen
waters lapping at the elevated trail.
Five- and six-foot
waves crashed over the pathway in some places, washing away not only the
trail's surface but also the rocks and fill that cover the marble slabs and
form the surface of the causeway. When the waters receded, the causeway
remained strong, but most of the trail surface was gone.
Yet locals love
their Island Line and are wasting no time in repairing this treasured regional
asset, which, as one of the most popular outdoor recreation facilities in Vermont, brings in
millions of dollars each year to the local economy.
Local Motion, a
Burlington-based nonprofit, has for the past decade operated a bike ferry
service across a narrow cut in the middle of the causeway to allow trail users
to pass between Colchester and South Hero. In the aftermath of the floods,
Local Motion is one of a group of trail supporters that have come together to
form "Friends of the Island Line Trail," charged with getting the trail back
into full operation.
that was unprecedented," says Brian Costello, who coordinates the bike ferry
across the 200-foot gap that severed the causeway when the railroad swing bridge
was removed in the 1960s. "We had the third snowiest winter on record, followed
by the rainiest spring on record. The rainfall in April and May was 100 percent
above the average--it was just 'biblical.'"
For Local Motion, the damage to the trail was a bitter pill to swallow. For the
past three years, the nonprofit had been raising money for a bigger boat and
floating wave attenuators to allow trail users to cross the cut daily throughout
the season. Costello says that with their old six-seat passenger pontoon boat, and
no protection from the frequent high wind and waves, Local Motion had limited
their service to just eight weekends a year. A more regular ferry crossing
service would allow up to 25,000 riders and hikers to complete the full 12-mile
Island Line each year, up from about 7,000 currently, a massive boost to the
local tourism and service industries.
But with all
resources focused on rebuilding the trail, the group's plans have been swept
aside for now.
There are two
options in rebuilding the trail. One is to replace the fill between the marble
boulders and reform the trail surface. The other option, both more expensive
and more time-consuming, is to rebuild the surface and reposition the enormous marble foundation slabs so as to
protect the causeway and the trail against future flood damage. This effort
would require money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA)
pre-disaster mitigation fund--a proactive measure to mitigate flood damage in
this time of changing rainfall patterns.
"We just don't
know if this just a one-time event, or whether we are looking at the new
normal," Costello says.
The call on how
the trail will be repaired now rests with FEMA, which has not yet determined a
timetable or final cost estimate. And it's a pretty big ballpark--Costello estimates
anywhere between $1 million and $6 million. If FEMA opts to fund the quicker
fix, the trail should be re-opened by next spring. If FEMA supports a plan for
more substantial repairs, the Island Line may not fully re-open for all of
is how Costello describes the situation. "I just wish we could go out there
with shovels and the donated heavy machinery and start getting it done."
engineers' plans have been completed, Friends of the Island Rail Trail will
continue to build strong local support for the repairs, and raise some money
for reconstruction. After all, to secure FEMA's financial contribution, the
local communities must come up with 25 percent of the money themselves. With
cities and towns already feeling the economic pinch, much of that burden will
be carried by local businesses and individuals--the people who use, love and
rely on the trail.
Between now and
September, South Hero, Charlotte and Burlington will host a
number of fundraisers, as trail users and recreation and tourism-related
businesspeople rally around the rail-trail. "The response has been more positive than we could have ever expected," Costello says.
While parts of
the Island Line remain closed, significant sections are still open to the
public. Local Motion is working proactively to maintain trail activity, steering
residents and visitors around closed sections and toward the many other multi-use
trails in the region.
on how you can help rebuild the Island Line Rail Trail, or for the most
up-to-date news on open trail sections, visit www.localmotion.org. And to discover other trails in the Burlington and South Hero region,
and right across Vermont,
Photos: Island Line prior to flood damage, by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; images of flood damage courtesy of Local Motion.