As construction season gets under way, work is set to begin on the first phase of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
When complete, the trail will stretch across the breadth of Vermont, between St. Johnsbury and Swanton.
But project organizers fear they won’t have the money to get very far.
The last train to run on the Lamoille Valley Railroad clattered to a halt in 1994. For the past two decades, nature has been slowly reclaiming the 96-mile corridor.
The right-of-way is controlled by the state, which has entrusted VAST, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, with creating a four-season recreational trail.
VAST began work on the trail in 2007 but progress has been limited. State officials designated the project as "development," which means it needed an Act 250 permit.
Two years and $300,000 later, VAST finally has permits to start work on three sections of trail – the two ends and a middle section in Lamoille County.
VAST Executive Director Alexis Nelson said work will start with a bridge project that will connect the rail trail to St. Johnsbury’s Three Rivers Trail.
"So the first thing that we hope to accomplish this summer is the construction of two bridges, one in St. Johnsbury and one in Danville. And then from there we’re going to start the actual construction work on the Morrisville to Cambridge section, which requires the least amount of actual ground work on the trail," Nelson said.
VAST is tackling the easiest section of trail first, because that’s what it can afford. Project Engineer Alan Robertson says VAST needs to put up its own money to qualify for federal spending. But the VAST money is nearly gone.
He says it was spent on the permitting process and making emergency storm and flood related repairs. He says, so far, federal dollars have not come through to reimburse for the washout repairs.
"It’s questionable, right now, whether we’ll get much more trail done before the money runs out. VAST has had a couple of bad years and they sunk a lot of money into this trail last year after hurricane Irene and, to a certain extent Hurricane Sandy, and the floods from the spring of 2012. And they’re out of money," Robertson said.
VAST’s Lamoille Valley Rail Trail Committee is raising money to keep the project on track. And Robertson says VAST is appealing to the federal government to either reimburse the money spent on storm damage, or at least consider that money part of the matching funds needed to free up federal grant money.
"Without that ability to recoup the money that we lost on that trail to fix the storm damage, we really don’t have enough funding to go ahead and do the eastern portion of phase one. We have plenty of federal money to do quite a bit more trail, but we don’t have the matching," Robertson said.
In addition to soliciting private donations, VAST is appealing to towns along the trail for in-kind assistance. But Executive Director Alexis Nelson said help with labor and materials only goes so far.
"So the towns are very supportive of this project, which is wonderful, but we need actual cash to help complete our match," Nelson said.
VAST is confident that once the trail is built, towns will help with maintenance. But no one can predict when the trail will be complete from end to end.