Perhaps the best thing about Burlington and certainly its premier attraction is the Burlington Bike Path. The Bike Path is a 7.5 mile multi-use pathway extending from Oakledge Park at the City’s southern boundary to the month of the Winooski River at its northern boundary along the shore of Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is the sixth largest fresh water lake in North America and certainly one of Burlington's best attractions, especially in the summer. The Bike Path is completely separate from car traffic and features spectacular views of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York throughout its course. The Bike Path is accessible on foot, by bike
, by Segway
, in-line skate or skate board. It connects public parks at Oakledge Park
, Perkins Pier
, Waterfront Park
, North Beach
and Leddy Park
with numerous small pocket parks and viewing vistas along the way.
The Burlington Bike Path is the result of years of a grass roots citizen’s effort by the Citizens Waterfront Group (CWG). This public interest group was formed by former Vermont Governor and Presidential Candidate, Howard Dean as an ordinary citizen before he got into politics, Burlington attorney and waterfront activist, Rick Sharp, and UVM Environmental Studies Professor, Tom Hudspeth, in 1980, in response to a proposal by the Pomerleau Real Estate Agency to build two 18 story luxury condominium towers on the waterfront just north of College Street. After being turned down by Mayor Gordon Paquette and the City Council in their quest to put an advisory referendum on the 1980 City ballot, the CWG collected petition signatures of 5% of City voters and got the Bike Path on the ballot. It received 75% support from City voters.
But the concept of the Bike Path languished for four years due to a lack of funding. Late in 1983 the CWG decided to go back to the voters to seek a two million dollar bond to construct the path. The bond would result in a substantial increase in the property tax and the CWG had no studies to support this two million dollar expenditure. Mayor Bernie Sanders (now U.S. Senator) and the City Council refused to put the bond on the March 1984 ballot. The CWG again collected signatures of 5% of City voters and got the measure on the March ballot. A two thirds majority is required for a bond and this initiative only received 55% support at the polls. But that strong showing of support got all the politicians to support a $750,000 bond in November that year that passed with the required 67%, paving the way for completion of the path.
Of course $750,000 turned out to be woefully inadequate to do the job right. Although it got the pathway installed, it was too narrow in many places and the inadequate subsurface and crumbling embankments along the old railroad bed has led to huge potholes and continuous maintenance problems. Over the years since its installation, the Bike Path proved to be overwhelmingly popular and is now rated as the #1 Attraction in Burlington on Trip Advisor. After 30 years of consistently increasing usage it became obvious that renovation was needed. The City is now in the process of raising the eleven million dollars needed to renovate the path into a world class multi-use path. Some of this reconstruction work has already been completed, mostly in the downtown area.
Along the way, toward converting the old railroad right-of-way in Burlington’s new north end into the Bike Path, in the early 1980s a lawsuit was filed by an adjoining landowner claiming that the rail bed reverted back to him when the railroad was abandoned in the 1960s. That lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. By the time it got there it had over 200 amicus curi briefs filed by other bicycle path advocates throughout the United States that wanted to convert similar railroad beds to bike paths. The Supreme Court ruled that this conversion was legal under the 1976 Rails to Trails Act approved by Congress. This law suit is the landmark ruling that has paved the way for the conversion of thousands of miles of old rail beds throughout the United States into multi-use pathways. As Burlington residents we are all very proud of the precedent we set for the entire nation!
After the Burlington Bike Path was completed in 1989 a local bicycle advocacy group was formed led by Brian Costello and Chapin Spence called Local Motion
. Over the years Local Motion has become the most effective bicycle advocacy group in the United States today.
The old railroad bridge across the Winooski River at the northern terminus of the Burlington Bike Path had been removed when the railroad out to the Champlain Islands was abandoned in the 1960s. Local Motion came up with a solution to extend the path northward across the Winooski River to allow bicyclists access to the Causeway extending from Colchester Point toward South Hero Island – a bike ferry! The bike ferry service started in 1998. Local Motion got approval for a bike lane through the Biscayne Heights subdivision that had been built in Colchester on top of the old railroad right-of-way and out onto Colchester Point to access the old rail bed on the Causeway. The Causeway bike path is one of the most beautiful in the world, with Lake Champlain on one side and Malletts Bay on the other, with spectacular views of both the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and the spine of the Green Mountains in Vermont. It is certainly worth the ten mile trip by bicycle (20 miles round trip) for some of the most spectacular views on any bike path worldwide.
The bike ferry across the Winooski River run by Local Motion became so popular over the years that, when Howard Dean became Governor, he was able to secure $3 million in transportation funding to rebuild a multi-use bridge with no car traffic across the River to replace the ferry permanently! Hooray for Howard! That freed up the ferry across the River for use at the gap in the Causeway where an old railroad bridge had been removed to allow sailboats passage from the broad lake into and out of Malletts Bay. Local Motion began bike ferry service across the gap in 2000 allowing bicycles to travel all the way from downtown Burlington to the Lake Champlain Islands and back (over 25 miles). They named this path the Island Line Trail. Trail maps are available at the Local Motion Trailside Center
in downtown Burlington. Bike rentals are only $18. If you do nothing else during your stay in Burlington this is the trip you simply have to experience. Although the round trip can be accomplished in 2 ½ hours by a strong bicyclist we recommend packing a lunch and making a day trip out of the round trip. Bring the whole family. They will all enjoy the views, the swimming and the exercise that has turned Burlington into a renowned tourist destination and became an integral part of the Burlington City Marathon.