A proposed railway tunnel in downtown Middlebury connecting the Main Street underpass to the Merchants Row underpass is an imaginative vision that deserves wholehearted support from town officials and community residents — and creates the opportunity to address adjacent problems that have gone unresolved for far too long.
As envisioned, the tunnel would be a 600-foot concrete structure spanning the length of the railway that currently bisects the Town Green. The tunnel would cover what is currently a 15-foot ravine fenced off on both sides by an imposing wrought iron, spiked barricade. The town has done its best to camouflage this unsightly gash with a masterful job of planting blooming vines and flowers on the Merchants Row side of the fence, but weeds sprout up around the underpasses and the gash itself creates a dubious, underground hangout.
The tunnel, on the other hand, would be covered with dirt and sod, creating a grassy lawn between the water fountain on Triangle Park and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The comparative vision between what is and what could be is breathtaking.
While the improved aesthetics of the Town Green would be enhanced tremendously, that is merely a by-product of the main objective — improving the railway through the downtown so that it can accommodate taller freight cars and faster trains. In that respect, the idea of a tunnel seems most practical.
• The railway needs an additional three feet in height from the railway bed to the inside top of any underpass through the downtown. Elevating the roads three feet is a non-starter (the state AOT initially proposed that idea and it was shot down immediately because it meant raising the roadbed higher than the downtown sidewalks — a pedestrian hazard to say the least. The state AOT agrees and has said that notion is now kaput.)
• Going down three feet creates the likelihood that water seepage would be a problem, so some measures will have to be taken to control water damage and the prospect of flooding. A full-fledged concrete tunnel with adequate drainage (railways do this all the time when going under rivers and other bodies of water) is a time-tested solution.
• The current underpasses are in a critical state of disrepair and their replacement is a top priority for the state.
• The tunnel has the added benefit of improving the aesthetics of the downtown, while also making residents safer and minimizing noise from trains that will soon be stopping at a passenger depot station in the downtown to accommodate travelers heading to New York City and beyond via Albany.
The proposal, in short, is a win-win for the town and the railway. Hopefully, Middlebury’s town fathers will get behind the idea — as will the state’s congressional delegation — and the town will resolve this long-standing problem with a little time to spare.
AN EXCITING VISION
Besides replacing the decaying underpasses, the proposed tunnel offers the opportunity to envision ways to improve the railway coming into and out of the downtown.
From the north, we would hope improvements would start near the Elm Street railway overpass and extend to the downtown (particularly along the section that adjoins the historic Marble Works Business District). This section of town has seen vast improvements over the past 25 years — notably with the recent addition of 30 high-end condominium units — yet, the rail bed remains littered much of the year and overgrown with vegetation throughout the summer. Sprucing up this section of the tracks would cost relative pennies, but would greatly enhance the travelers’ visual impression of the town.
A companion project for the town is to re-invent how the Main Street underpass area might work better by taking out the metal-frame Lazarus building to create a safer pedestrian walkway into the busy Marble Works, create more parking and, perhaps, construct a smaller building in its footprint that more closely matches Main Street’s historic streetscape.
On the south end of the proposed tunnel, the 100-yard stretch from Merchants Row to the Cross Street Bridge offers a wonderful opportunity for a complete makeover.
Imagine a passenger depot just downhill of Cross Street near that bridge. Imagine clearing the debris and dead trees off the crescent-shape spit of land known as the Ice House Park (between the trestle and the Cross Street Bridge on the west side of the tracks) and creating a well-manicured, grassy park for picnics and walking the dog (with minimal facilities as it is prone to flooding); imagine creating a walkway behind the Battell Building that goes from that parking lot to the Cross Street Bridge and the adjacent Ice House Park along the banks of the Otter Creek. The vision is upscale — well lit at night by historic gaslight lanterns along a boardwalk, creating a pleasant stroll along the river for pedestrians and opening up a side of the Otter Creek that has been previously inaccessible.
And it is all very feasible. These are not expensive projects, but they would make a world of difference to what is now the one area of Middlebury’s downtown that is unsightly, neglected and vastly underutilized.