Adam Caira / Staff Photo
Chauntelle Eckhaus, center, of Calais, and her daughters, Annaliese Eckhaus, 5, left, and Eliana Eckhaus, 9, walk and ride scooters on the recreation path along Stone Cutters Way in Montpelier on Monday. Plans to extend the path through Berlin are being stymied by issues with the use of the rail bed.
BERLIN — When it comes to plans to construct a 14.5-mile bike path from Montpelier through Berlin and Barre and up into the hills of Barre Town, working around the railroad is easier said than done.
That is particularly true in Berlin, where officials have shelved plans to construct a key segment of the Central Vermont Regional Path along an unused rail bed that is owned by the state and leased to the Washington County Railroad.
The problem, state and local officials say, can be traced to the railroad’s evolving plan to haul waste granite from Rock of Ages Corp. in Barre Town to various out-of-state customers using a route that mirrors the conceptual alignment of much of the proposed bike path.
An anticipated increase in rail traffic, coupled with unspecified improvements in key areas along the route, has raised fresh questions about the viability of the route chosen many years ago.
It was an obvious choice.
Not just because the railroad was constructed along the bottom of the river valley that runs between Barre and Montpelier, though there was something to be said for selecting a well-traveled route that took steep grades out of play. Working with the railroad wherever possible also meant dealing with a single property owner — the state — simplifying the potentially complex and expensive right of way process.
Of course that was before Rock of Ages discovered a market for mountains of its granite “grout” and determined rail was the most cost-effective way to ship the waste material out of state.
That was more than three years ago.
Uncertainty involving railroad improvements needed to accommodate the granite train stalled development of a 3.5-mile segment of the regional path that would have linked Montpelier and Berlin.
Montpelier officials recently reactivated their efforts to advance a 2.1-mile segment of the path — one that would run from Granite Street, where its existing path ends, all the way to the civic center at the base of Gallison Hill Road.
According to Andre Deforge, project manager for the state Agency of Transportation, that will require modifying an alignment to avoid minor conflicts that have surfaced with the railroad in Montpelier. The Berlin leg of the path is another story, he said.
Berlin officials indicated as much in a letter Deforge has passed up the chain of command.
Berlin’s plan to construct a 1.4-mile segment of path that would link up near Agway on Route 2 with the one proposed by Montpelier required the use of an inactive rail bed that the railroad has since indicated it needs to accommodate the granite hauling operation.
“The railroad has determined that the abandoned rail line will be required to store and switch cars as part of this operation and (is) … unwilling to give up the proposed alignment to the town (of Berlin) for a bike path,” the town wrote in a letter that was approved by the Select Board and mailed to Deforge last week.
According to the letter, working around the abandoned rail line isn’t a viable option due to surrounding wetlands.
Town Administrator Jeff Schulz outlined those concerns when discussing the matter with the Select Board last week.
“It’s becoming clear, at this point, this project is probably not feasible,” he said.
With that in mind, Schulz suggested the board try to persuade state officials to waive the payback requirement of federal funds that financed preliminary engineering and consider returning money that was donated for the bike path.
Tom Willard, who serves on the local bike path committee, said roughly $200,000 has been spent on preliminary engineering and that barring a waiver the town would be required to pay that money back.
“It’s pretty sad when you think about how much time and effort went into this,” he said, suggesting that creating a multiuse recreational path linking Barre and Montpelier was a no-brainer.
“It makes all the sense in the world to connect these two cities,” he said.
The question now is: how? “We need to find an alignment that is affordable, safe and can be reliably built,” Willard said, admitting that while there are some possibilities that might be worth exploring, none is nearly as obvious as the abandoned rail bed.
The old rail bed “was essentially a bike path ready to be built,” he said. “That’s what makes it so disappointing.”
Finding an alternate route through Berlin is imperative to preserve plans for a regional path that has been in the planning stages for well over a decade. Only three segments of the proposed path currently exist. One runs from the Dog River Recreation Area to Granite Street in Montpelier, another from Fairview Street in Barre to Bridge Street in South Barre and a third from Barre Town Elementary and Middle School to Rock of Ages’ manufacturing plant in Barre Town.
Barre is poised to start a fourth segment of path that would run between Berlin and Blackwell streets. However, officials there are trying to iron out their own railroad-related wrinkle that could disrupt a long-settled alignment on a separate section of that path.
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