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Transportation secretary praises Middlebury bridge effort

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December 6, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY  — Vermont Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville on Monday credited the town of Middlebury and Middlebury College for joining forces in trying to finance a new in-town bridge, adding that such collaborations will be key if the state is to whittle away at the many construction projects that are languishing on the drawing board due to a lack of funds.

“I commend both the town and the college for their willingness to look at creative and innovative ways to finance transportation projects,” Lunderville said during a telephone interview.

“The college and town were able to combine their resources to solve a mobility and safety issue that is important to them both,” he added. “I applaud their collaboration.”

The collaboration to which Lunderville is referring involves a pledge by the college to give $9 million toward a new in-town bridge that would link Main Street with Court Street via Cross Street, across the Otter Creek. The college’s commitment to back a $9 million bond the town would float, actually would add up to total payments from the college of $18 million ($600,000 annually over 30 years) to cover the interest and principal on the bonds. The college’s payments would kick in when and if the bridge is completed, perhaps as soon as 2011.

Officials are estimating a total project cost of $16 million, when one includes related road and intersection work, as well as the expense of acquiring four properties within the proposed bridge right-of-way. Middlebury officials will seek federal funds, donations, property tax dollars and “creative financing” to gather the remaining $7 million for the project.

While Middlebury could’ve tried to keep steering the in-town bridge through the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) capital projects list, that’s a process that state officials have conceded could take more than a decade and even longer before it was built. The reason: there’s already a hefty backlog of big projects, and a renewed AOT commitment to using state and federal transportation funds to fix existing roads, bridges and culverts. Those economic realities make the Middlebury/college partnership particularly important, according to Lunderville.

“Every year, the demand for projects exceeds our ability to pay for them, Lunderville said. “We want to work with towns to explore a whole range of (creative financing) options.”

Those financing options, according to Lunderville, may include public-private partnerships and “tax increment finance districts” that allow communities to funnel property tax revenues from specific developments to pay down debt on public projects.

AOT officials realize that the more creative financing scenarios emerge for projects like Middlebury’s in-town bridge, the more the state will be able to stretch its federal transportation dollars. Officials also realize, however, that there aren’t too many communities in the state other than Middlebury that have major potential benefactor(s) in their midst that could afford to help bankroll major construction.

Asked if the state might consider supporting a special funding request toward Middlebury’s in-town bridge in the near future given the town had now amassed more than half of the project costs, Lunderville replied “we are always willing to have conversations about these things.”

He stressed, however, that transportation officials will have to “look at the needs we have all over the state to see if we have any wiggle room. Money is going to continue to be tight for many years.”

In the meantime, Lunderville pledged the AOT’s help with technical assistance.

 “We look forward to working with the town and college in this endeavor,” Lunderville said.

State Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said she has mixed feelings about Middlebury taking on the in-town bridge project on its own. She pointed to what she observes as an ongoing “trend” of state and federal government cutting programs and “leaving towns on their own.”

On the other hand, Ayer — the Senate majority whip — said Middlebury and the college should be congratulated for taking the initiative.

“Sometimes when you need something done, you have to do it yourself,” Ayer said.

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