Burlington-Area Bike Paths Are All They're Cracked Up to Be
Burlington Bike Path between Oakledge Park and North Beach
A year after springtime floods destroyed chunks of the Burlington Bike Path, some sections are still crumbling and roped off from cyclists, runners, walkers and bladers.
Most of those gouged-out areas are finally being repaired, however, in order to make the 7.5-mile path safe for participants in the May 27 Vermont City Marathon. Mayor Miro Weinberger says that, shortly after taking office earlier this month, he directed city officials to initiate work immediately on trouble spots that had gone unrepaired for 12 months.
The imminent city-funded $30,000 fix-up of badly damaged — and dangerous — segments of the bike path is only a temporary patch job, however. There’s a plan for a more thorough, $2.1 million set of repairs of flood-eroded segments that is to be financed mainly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Weinberger is also dissatisfied with the pace of that initiative, which, according to Burlington Parks and Recreation Department head Mari Steinbach, may not get under way for another year.
“There’s been too long a delay in starting this work, especially compared to the repairs of highways in the aftermath of [Tropical Storm] Irene,” Weinberger declares. He says he will push FEMA and other parties to move more quickly on the repair project.
FEMA is also expected to be the main bankroller for extensive repairs of the bike-and-pedestrian causeway in Colchester that juts into Lake Champlain. Much of that scenic, packed-gravel spit was reclaimed last spring by the swollen, raging lake. It will cost an estimated $900,000 to restore the stretch of the causeway leading from the Colchester mainland to the 200-foot-wide cut where Local Motion, a Burlington-based advocacy group, had been operating a summer bike ferry. An additional $200,000 — also mostly from FEMA — is needed to repair the northern half-mile leg of the causeway that connects to South Hero.
This entire 12.5-mile route for nonmotorized transport — running from Oakledge Park to South Hero — is known as the Island Line. It’s a major economic asset that should be restored and properly maintained, says Local Motion leader Chapin Spencer. Users of just the Burlington portion of the Island Line generate at least $6 million a year in economic activity for the city, Spencer says, citing a 2010 University of Vermont survey and estimates of the impact of events such as the marathon and USA Triathlon.
Potentially greater economic benefits can be achieved once the bike ferry service at the causeway cut is restored, Spencer says. Then, Québec tourists will be able to “pedal straight into Burlington and spend their money here,” he points out. Local Motion is thus undertaking a $1.3 million fundraising effort to construct a more secure, handicap accessible bike-ferry facility at the cut. The service will remain inoperable again this summer, due to causeway flood damage, but is projected to resume on a daily basis in 2013.
Stretches of the Burlington Bike Path, especially in the New North End beyond Leddy Park, appear to be in relatively good shape. But the most heavily used segment — between Oakledge Park and North Beach — presents major structural problems unrelated to last year’s flood.
The 26-year-old Burlington Bike Path was in generally “disastrous shape, even before the flood,” says John Bossange, head of a city council-appointed citizens task force charged with devising a long-term plan for this popular asset. Having been built along a former rail bed, the bike path “is sinking into the lake,” Bossange says. “Trees that were saplings when it was built now have roots underneath it. Plus, there’s been no consistent maintenance.”
The task force, which has been deliberating for the past 18 months, will soon formally present three options for what would essentially be a structural makeover of the entire Burlington Bike Path. According to a feasibility study released in March, the most basic plan would cost $11.6 million. The priciest option — involving more lighting, fencing and directional signs, as well as drinking fountains and kiosks — would run to nearly $17 million. All the proposals call for widening the right-of-way from its current eight feet to the federal standard of 11 feet, which had not been stipulated when construction of the bike path began in 1986.
If the city had to pay the full cost of these plans — which it almost certainly will not, Bossange notes — property taxes would rise $50 a year on a $250,000 home to cover the cheaper option; the same homeowner would pay $75 more than at present to finance the big-ticket option.
Will the mayor commit to supporting a bond — and attendant tax increase — to finance a rebuild of the bike path?
Bossange says Weinberger has been “all ears” in his meetings with task-force members. “He seems to get it,” Bossange says of the new mayor.
Weinberger himself cautions that it’s too soon to decide how best to fund the envisioned rehab that could take as long as five years to complete. “I want to look at all available funding sources,” he says. “It may well be that there are other substantial ways of doing this besides going with a huge bond for the city.”
The new administration does take alternate forms of transportation seriously and will be activist in its approach to them, Weinberger adds. If that proves true, it will mark a departure from how the bike path in particular has been viewed by the city in recent years.
As Bossange notes, its upkeep has been largely neglected. The unrepaired damage from the 2011 flooding serves as a dramatic indication of municipal priorities.
“Should repairs have been put on an emergency, top-drawer basis before someone got hurt?” Bossange asks. “That’s a great question I don’t have an answer for.”
Spencer does offer an explanation.
“The speed with which repairs are being made is, I think, a reflection of the unfortunate perception that it’s a recreation corridor,” he says. “It’s valued less than a transportation corridor.” Spencer notes that surveys show 25 percent of the estimated 150,000 yearly trips along the Burlington Bike Path are made for practical purposes, not purely for recreation.
Evidence of the secondary status that some officials assign to cycling and walking, in comparison to motoring, can be seen in the $143,000 that Local Motion is attempting to raise to help finance repairs to the Island Line in both Burlington and Colchester. LoMo aims to cover what the localities say is a shortfall in the amount of funding needed to match the FEMA outlays. There’s no corresponding example of a nongovernmental organization asking for charitable contributions to repair a road used by drivers.
Burlington needs to come up with about $350,000 — its share of the $2.1 million in repairs for the lakefront bike path that may not be completed until 2014. Likely sources? Steinbach identifies the Penny for Parks tax revenue set-aside and the city’s capital-improvements budget.
The city is getting a free ride, however, in regard to another bike path that is scheduled to undergo major repair this summer. The Federal Highway Administration is picking up the full $442,000 tab for restoring a flood-wrecked segment of the bike path that runs alongside the Burlington Beltline. Full federal funding is available because of the beltline path’s proximity to what is designated as a state highway, Steinbach explains.
Despite what critics describe as the previous city administration’s slacker attitude regarding the lakefront bike path, Spencer suggests that Vermont politicians are actually becoming more responsive to advocates of nonpolluting forms of transportation. He gives the Shumlin administration a B+ grade for its commitment to making federal and state funds available for a range of bicycling and pedestrian projects that previously had fewer options for funding.
Changes in the public’s attitudes toward cycling and walking could help advance efforts to transform the Burlington Bike Path into what Bossange envisions as a “world-class” model. One example of that new outlook can be seen in Colchester’s Biscayne Heights neighborhood, which is on the bike path.
Fearing that their suburban enclave would be disturbed by bikers from Burlington, a few of those residents fought construction of the bike bridge, completed in 2004, and the routing through Delta Park and past their front yards. But according to a 2009 study by the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, there have been no reports of accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians in Biscayne Heights.
Glen Cuttitta, head of the Colchester Parks and Recreation Department, adds that he has heard no complaints about cyclists in that neighborhood.
“In general,” Cuttitta says, “people there have gotten used to bikers, and some may have started using the recreation corridor themselves. It does run right outside their door, and it’s a wonderful way to exercise as well as to see some beautiful landscapes.”