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After Flood Damage, Communities Rally Around Island Line Rail Trail in Vermont

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 popular destination.

Earlier this 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.

"Flooding like 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 2012.

"Frustrating," 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."

But until 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.

For information 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, visit www.traillink.com.

Photos: Island Line prior to flood damage, by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; images of flood damage courtesy of Local Motion. 



Posted Tue, Jul 5 2011 1:39 PM by Jake Lynch


Birdie Pasenelli. wrote re: After Flood Damage, Communities Rally Around Island Line Rail Trail in Vermont
on Thu, Jul 7 2011 7:25 PM

Rode this trail 5 years ago as part of our ride around Lake Champlain. It is a national treasure.  I wish Local Motion and their helpers good luck in reconstruction.

dave wrote re: After Flood Damage, Communities Rally Around Island Line Rail Trail in Vermont
on Fri, Jul 8 2011 12:42 AM

I planned by trip years ago to Vermont to specifically ride this treasure, after seeing it in the Rails-to-Trails quarterly magazine some years ago. It was well worth it, as was Burlington, Local Motion and the Champlain Islands.


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