Thursday, February 14, 2008
Causeway's cause gets state aid boost
Published: Monday, February 11, 2008
By Joel Banner Baird
Burlington Free Press Staff Writer
A bridge once shouldered Montreal-bound trains across the cut in the marble causeway linking Colchester with South Hero. With the rails long gone, hikers and bicyclists must leapfrog the 200-foot gap, courtesy of a six-passenger pontoon ferry -- but only in August, only on weekends, and only when the strong south winds abate.
A $300,000 state grant, awarded in January to the Burlington-based nonprofit group Local Motion, will help pay for upgrades to make crossing the cut a safer and more consistent passage, said Brian Costello, coordinator of the advocacy group Island Line Trail last week .
"The main improvement will be wave attenuators -- or floating breakwaters," he said. "In the average season we've had to close down the ferry for a day because of high winds."
Open to non-motorized traffic, the trail runs 12 miles north from the Burlington waterfront. Its final, intact leg, the town of Colchester's Causeway Park, extends as a thin peninsula 3 miles into Lake Champlain. The Vermont Agency of Transportation's recent enhancement grant will cover about one-third of the construction costs of the project, Costello said.
The fully engineered plan also calls for fishing platforms, overlooks and wider turnarounds for maintenance and emergency vehicles.
If Local Motion's capital fund drive raises the money, the project could be completed by mid-2009 -- in time for the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's first visit to the lake, which until that time was known as BitawbagokCauseway and effect
Costello said escalating public interest in a Burlington-to-Montreal recreational trail prompted plans for improved ferry service. The vision is not new.
From the inauguration of service on the Rutland-Canadian Line in 1899 until the last passenger train ran in 1955, rail-bound Vermonters and Quebeckers popularized the Champlain Islands as holiday destinations.
Truck traffic replaced the line's freight service in 1961; in 1963 the state bought the entire right-of-way.
Among the possibilities in a 1965 study commissioned by then-Gov. Philip Hoff: a "string of pearls" series of parks, connected by the old rail route.
Private speculation and public skepticism torpedoed the plan, and the uninterrupted corridor was auctioned off, piecemeal.
Two years ago, a 130-page study commissioned by the Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce and the Island Line Steering Committee outlined, mile-by-mile, several alternatives to a strictly rails-to-trails approach.
The study, which includes options for equestrian and snowmobile riders, suggests that easier access to Quebec's "Route Verte" trail network would likely bring significant economic benefits.
A diversity of interests and priorities fueled -- and still fuel -- committee discussions.
Representatives from the towns of Colchester and South Hero take part, as do business leaders, Local Motion staff and technicians from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Bonnie Waninger, a steering committee member and assistant director of the St. Albans-based Northwest Regional Planning Commission, said sharing the waterway with recreational boaters from nearby Malletts Bay has prompted few disagreements.
More challenging, she said, was making the islands' narrow roads, for decades dominated by motorists, more welcoming for walkers and cyclists.
There's hope for the first few miles they'll encounter in South Hero. Don Smallwood, the town's zoning administrator, said a federally funded project is under way to widen South Street from Allen Point to South Hero Village.
A 3-foot multipurpose zone along the road will accommodate children walking to school, Smallwood said, adding that the project's role as a region-wide recreation corridor takes back seat to local needs.
"We designed this with local needs in mind," he said. "It's all about safety."
Although the town line between South Hero and Colchester bisects the Island Line trail, the latter town owns the causeway's surface all the way to The Cut.
That's a mixed blessing for Glen Cuttitta, Colchester's director of parks and recreation. This spring, before most causeway mavens flock to the marble trail, he'll oversee resurfacing and drainage projects along the town's linear park.
"The challenge is high water and erosion," Cuttitta said. This place is subject to Mother Nature 12 months a year, out in the middle of the lake. "It's beautiful and we're proud of it," he added. "It's becoming a destination."
Contact Joel Banner Baird at 660-1843 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Champlain Bikeways: www.champlainbikeways.org
Local Motion: www.localmotion.org
Island Line history: www.lavigneworld.com/rutland/freepress.html
Quebec's Route Verte: www.routeverte.com/rv/ang/index.lasso
If you go
WHAT: The Island Line Steering Committee, a group of landowners, nonprofits and municipal leaders, will discuss transportation innovations and alternatives in the Champlain Islands. The public is invited.
WHEN: 7 p.m., Feb. 21
WHERE: Ed Weed Fish Culture Station (Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department hatchery), Vermont 314, Grand Isle; across from ferry landing.
MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Northwest Regional Planning Authority at 524-5958