From a modestly selfish perspective, the best news for Franklin County in Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address last week was his pledge to put $2.8 million toward the construction of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail [LVRT]. The money will be used to leverage another $11.3 million in federal dollars, which means there will be enough money to complete the 93-mile trail from Swanton to St. Johnsbury. At long last.

The governor’s decision is incredibly good news to this part of the state, and to the five counties and 18 towns the trail crosses. The full length of the rail trail has not been used since 1994 when the St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad ceased operation. When it’s completed the trail will be the longest in New England and a top attraction for tourists looking for activity-based recreation.

For Franklin County residents, it’s an extra bonus. We already have the heavily used 26.3-mile long Missisquoi Valley Rail Train [MVRT] which runs south to north from St. Albans to the Canadian border above Richford. The LMVT, which runs east to west, intersects the MVRT at Sheldon Junction, which means offering those interested an extended choice one way or the other, or both. It’s a nexus that should be inviting to a four-season tourism surge that could be of considerable value.

According to the governor’s proposed plans, the Franklin County portion of the LVRT amounts to about 30 miles of the 93-mile total, and about half the remaining 60 miles to be completed. Franklin County’s portion would be broken up into three stages: the four miles from Highgate to Swanton, the 18.5 miles from Cambridge to Sheldon, and the six miles from Sheldon Junction to Highgate. The time line for competition is four to five years, which, if the money is appropriated, is a much faster time frame than was anticipated. [It’s been a long slog to get this far.]

It’s a big deal for this part of Vermont. Thirty percent of the trail runs through Franklin County and most of it in territory we rarely see. [For example, the 18.5 mile section runs through Sheldon along Black Creek, where it crosses the Chester A. Arthur Road several miles outside of Fairfield. It continues to run along Black Creek until it crosses Ryan Road and begins to parallel Rt. 36 until it shoots south in East Fairfield, relatively close to the Elm Brook State Wildlife Management Area, arguably one of the prettiest sections of Franklin County. The trail remains a fair distance from any road until it begins to parallel Rt. 108 in East Fletcher.] Altogether it would be a leaf peeper’s mecca.

It’s things like this that suddenly turn our rural towns and villages into destinations. And it’s important to recognize that this should be a state appropriation; it’s no less valuable to the state and its citizens than many of the transportation responsibilities presently assumed. It facilitates walking and biking. It’s an alternative to people driving. It’s healthy. And it’s a safe bet the $2.8 million investment will generate returns that make the “investment” a no-brainer.

But the investment is also important beyond tourism. There is also an economic benefit that accrues to communities along the rail trail. When the trails are built local communities are increasingly likely to build their own spurs that link to the trail. This not only encourages local businesses but it adds to the vigor of the connected communities. It’s just one of many ways to encourage people to exercise, to get outside their homes,to fight the isolation. If the opportunity is there, people will take advantage of it. If not, they can’t.

There are 38 Vermont communities in five different counties that will now be connected by either the LVRT or the MVRT. Not too many communities have this opportunity. Shame on us if we can’t figure out ways to use it to build our brand, to make ourselves a healthier, happier place to live.

Governor Scott has presented a budget that includes the $2.8 million to complete the trail. It’s up to us and our legislative representatives to promote our cause and to see that the governor’s proposal makes it through the Legislature’s budgeting process.

by Emerson Lynn

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