MIDDLEBURY — It was during the fall of 2010 that the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project was unveiled in downtown Middlebury with high hopes that it would clear Main Street traffic jams and provide a vital, second crossing of the Otter Creek as an insurance policy for emergency vehicles.
A year later, those hopes seem to be fulfilled: Early supporters and detractors alike are touting the project as an aesthetic and functional asset to the community.
“It has been an overwhelming success,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, whose department performed a traffic survey two months after the project’s completion that showed the new span was taking around 5,000 vehicles per day off a perennially clogged Main Street.
“It has freed up Court Square and the Main Street and Merchants Row intersections,” Hanley added. “It has given us another way to circulate traffic.”
Other town officials, commuters and downtown merchants echoed Hanley’s observations.
“It has proven its worth every day,” said Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger, who made the Cross Street Bridge project one of his main objectives after joining the town staff 11 years ago. “It is the best project I have ever seen.”
It was an undertaking made possible through a 30-year bond approved by local voters. That bond is being paid off by a combination of a $9 million contribution from Middlebury College and revenues from a series of 1-percent local option taxes on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol that generate an additional $7 million.
The main features of the project are the 460-foot Cross Street Bridge and a roundabout intersection that connects the span with Main, College and Park streets as well as Bakery Lane.
Officials said locals and visitors alike have become adept at negotiating the roundabout and the new bridge. Hanley said there have been few recorded accidents within the roundabout, which has kept traffic flowing more smoothly than a signaled intersection.
Deb Evans and her spouse, Will Nash, are among hundreds of parents who live in the southwestern corner of town and are finding the bridge a big time-saver in delivering their children to Mary Hogan Elementary, Middlebury Union Middle School and other schools on Court Street and Route 7. Those travelers no longer have to crawl down Main Street and negotiate Court Square.
“It makes our mornings much easier,” said Evans, whose family lives in the Franklin Street neighborhood, and whose daughter, Hadley, is a seventh-grader at MUMS. “We have a more direct hop-over to the middle school. (The bridge) has been a tremendous asset.”
Middlebury College Ronald D. Liebowitz added his voice to those saying the project has lived up to its advance billing.
“I think the project has been very much worth it,” Liebowitz said during a Monday phone interview. “Aesthetically, the town looks beautiful, and I think the bridge adds a dimension to the attractiveness of Middlebury.”
He praised the project designers.
“It is beautiful. It creates a nice feel, from the Congregational Church of Middlebury all the way to the municipal building,” Liebowitz said. “It exceeded my own expectations.”
Many returning college alumni have praised the project, said Liebowitz, who regularly walks the span as part of a loop.
“It makes the town more walkable with the addition of new sidewalks,” he said.
The span has also proven itself at its chosen location, supporters said. A committee studied several possible sites — both downtown and out of town — for the bridge prior to recommending the Cross Street location.
“I know there were people quite dubious about the location, and I was one of those, to be honest,” Liebowitz said. “But I think it has done exactly what those who know better projected it would do, which is to alleviate a lot of the jamming that takes place in the middle of town. There are still slowdowns, but they are not nearly what they used to be.”
Liebowitz added the span is also fitting the bill as key safety valve across the Otter Creek for ambulances and fire trucks that might not otherwise get across the Battell Bridge or Pulp Mill Bridge in a timely fashion.
“Just knowing that we have this secondary artery in and out of town over the Otter Creek makes me feel better and is one less safety issue of concern among many that we have to think about,” Liebowitz said.
Middlebury Selectboard Chairman John Tenny has been a strong advocate for a second in-town bridge during his 16 years on the board. He is pleased with the way the project turned out.
“I think from a standpoint of solving the transportation issues we sought to resolve, the result has been as least as good as we thought it could be,” Tenny said.
He also touted the process that led to the bridge financing and construction. Tenny said the town-gown collaboration on financing allowed the bridge to get built faster than it would have through the conventional process, which would have called for a more lengthy vetting process and additional permitting hurdles at the state level.
It was also the first major “design-build” project in Vermont. The design-build process is one through which a team is assembled to move directly from engineering to construction with a budget already in place. Usually, such projects go through a more time-consuming design-bid-build process.
“There was the tremendous asset of the college working with the town,” Tenny said. “It shows what we can do when we work together.”
A majority of downtown merchants supported the bridge project, in spite of the local option taxes and the many months of traffic disruption during construction. Some merchants also feared that the Cross Street Bridge might divert too many vehicles — and therefore prospective customers — off Main Street.
Donna Donahue, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, said she has heard no adverse reaction from downtown merchants since the bridge has opened.
“The perception that (shoppers) might bypass Main Street was a concern,” Donahue acknowledged. “But I have not heard one person say that since the bridge has been in place. Most of the feedback I have heard has been very positive.”
Tony Neri is the owner of 86 Main St., which houses Two Brothers Tavern. The building is located right on the edge of the roundabout. Neri voiced significant concerns prior to construction about the loss of five spaces in front of his business and about the possibility of prospective shoppers bypassing Main Street.
Neri said on Tuesday he remains concerned about the potential diversion of customers — “You lose eye contact with the windows,” he noted — but is satisfied that his property has been held harmless by the project. In fact, he believes the bridge and roundabout have enhanced the visibility of 86 Main St. and Two Brothers.
“I think it worked out well,” Neri said. “Two Brothers is now the heart of downtown Middlebury.”
Holmes Jacobs, co-owner of Two Brothers, is pleased.
“Overall, the effect has been positive,” Holmes said of the bridge. “Our initial fear of a loss of business due to a loss of parking spaces has been offset by added exposure.”
Nancie Dunn is owner of Sweet Cecily at 42 Main St. She said she’s not sure whether the bridge is steering away customers, but added, “Business in downtown is good.”
She also believes that the local option taxes have not discouraged people from doing business in Middlebury.
“I think the bridge is great,” Dunn said. “The whole vista in that part of town has improved.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]