VTrans floats idea of Route 5 bike path from Massachusetts to Quebec

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-19-2023 3:34 AM

FAIRLEE — Town leaders are giving feedback to the Vermont Agency of Transportation and regional planning commissions on a potential bike corridor running the 200-mile length of the state’s Route 5.

Considerations for the corridor, which would connect Massachusetts to Quebec, are still in the earliest phases. A survey gauging interest sent out by the agency, known as VTrans, to town officials will be turned over to the Legislature when it’s back in session in January.

The cost of the project — and where the money could come from — is still unclear, according to Matthew Arancio, a planning coordinator with VTrans who’s leading the call for feedback on the potential project.

Rita Seto, head of transportation planning at the nonprofit Two-Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, emphasized that the project is still in the beginning stages of planning.

If it were to come to fruition, it might not look like what one would expect, she said.

“Route 5 is complicated geographically, and in terms of regulation, the route meanders through a number of municipalities,” Seto said.

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That spells complexity for planners.

“Obviously creating a standalone, fully separated bike lane, would be optimal,” Seto said. “But I don’t think, in terms of the cost and the engineering, it would be feasible.”

She anticipates the corridor would include both on-roadway painted lanes and off-road paths running parallel to Route 5. “A lot of these construction projects take a long time,” Seto said. “Even building something that’s just a mile takes a long time.”

But if it were to come down the pipeline, the Fairlee Selectboard is in favor of the project, said Vice Chairman Peter Berger. In the town that sits just off Route 5, “coexistence of car travel and bike travel is important,” Berger said.

In 2022, Fairlee received more than $100,000 from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to build sidewalks and crosswalks on its main street, part of a larger town plan to increase ease of pedestrian traffic across Fairlee.

Berger sees the possible route as working in concert with that project, he said.

“There’s really a marketing piece that people aren’t aware of,” he said. “This would be in part about making access to shopping centers for people.”

Commuters especially, traveling between towns on Route 5 for “purposeful” travel like work and shopping, could be served by a bike corridor. But Berger said he knows of more recreational bike users than commuters, as people flock to the town in warmer days to bike around Lake Morey and Lake Fairlee.

He’s concerned, however, about the complications of a bike route of that scale, which would be the longest in Vermont.

“The state has to be reasonable in its initiatives,” Berger said.

The Thetford Selectboard also is in “full support” of the project, wrote Chairwoman Sharon Harkay in an email to the Valley News. “We see it as a chance for safer cycling which would, hopefully, lead to more people getting out on their bicycles to get healthy exercise, travel to various places of interest, shop, commute and connect to other bicycle trails.”

The access the corridor would give to other bike trails across Vermont and New Hampshire is part of the excitement, said Tom Sexton, director of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit trail building organization.

The Route 5 corridor could easily connect to the Northern Rail Trail, which runs from Concord to Lebanon, said Sexton, in a telephone interview from Camp Hill, Pa.

From there, once the corridor lands riders in Wells River, Vt., they could continue on the Cross Vermont Trail — which follows the Winooski and Wells River valleys — or head to Woodsville, N.H. and pick up the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail, which goes north to Littleton, N.H.

If it were to come to fruition, the trail would be “a win for rural bicycling, pedestrians and economic opportunity,” Sexton said.

In New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River from Fairlee, Orford Selectboard Chairman John Adams said VTrans had sent him information about the potential corridor.

Just “like the railroad did,” this project would pass Orford by, Adams lamented.

Still, recreational cycling, and events like the annual Prouty charitable bike ride hosted by the Friends of Dartmouth Cancer Center, sees bicyclists cross the Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge from Fairlee onto N.H. Route 10 into Orford, Adams said.

But “there’s no Orford bicycle club so to speak, out championing it,” he said.

Arancio, the VTrans official, emphasized that the project’s “unprecedented” scale is why it’s all the more important “to gauge stakeholder buy in,” he said.

He compared the corridor to the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, or LVRT, that runs from St. Johnsbury, Vt. to Swanton, Vt., which covers less than half the length of the proposed Route 5 corridor. Creation of the LVRT took over three decades of design and construction, only wrapping up last year.

The $31 million trail was constructed through state and federal funding.

With the potential Route 5 project, “we’re talking about a large complex corridor with many different stakeholders,” Arancio said.

“This isn’t even taking into consideration additional infrastructure projects that could come up.”

For now, the agency’s plans remain at “step zero,” Arancio said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.