2016 start planned for Middlebury tunnel project

MIDDLEBURY — Replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail overpasses probably won’t begin until next spring, but project managers hope to spend this year laying groundwork for the massive project through such jobs such as relocating the Addison County Transit Resources bus stop from Merchants Row to Seymour Street and building an access road for Battell Block parking.

Once the project begins, downtown shoppers, property owners, residents, merchants and travelers will need to brace themselves for up to three construction seasons of upheaval.

Local project Manager Bill Finger warned all concerned to expect detours, noise, bright lights and the temporary loss of around 50 parking spots on Merchants Row and along Main Street near the Post Office and National Bank of Middlebury.

The focal point of the work will be construction of a 300-foot concrete tunnel that will replace the rapidly deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses. Some additional green space will be provided on the surface of the tunnel, connecting Triangle Park with recently improved St. Stephen’s access.

 “It will be a slow, noisy, dusty process,” Finger told the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday. “Everyone will do their darnedest to make sure it doesn’t make people’s lives miserable.”

A project update posted on Middlebury’s town website (townofmiddlebury.org) paints an equally candid picture.

“This is NOT a pretty project,” officials exclaim through the update. “To date we have tried to make this project sound simple and non-intrusive. However, it is not simple; it is complex. It is not clean; it will be dirty and dusty. It is not quiet; it will be noisy. It will not be dark at night; it will be bright in places.”

Among other things, people will notice a massive crane that will move back and forth between the Merchants Row and Main Street rail overpasses.

“It will be right in your face,” Finger said.

Officials had been anticipating two daily eight-hour shifts for workers toiling away on the tunnel. Finger on Tuesday raised the possibility of two 10-hour shifts as part of an effort to get the job done more quickly. And nighttime work will create a din that will require a waiver from Middlebury’s noise ordinance, Finger said. Some of that noise will come from an estimated 360 piles that will need to be driven into the bedrock within the tunnel area, officials noted.

Vermont Rail officials are keen on ensuring passage of two daily freight trains during construction, and a four-hour window is being built into each day to allow that to happen, officials said. Finger explained the cost of detouring the trains — an expense that would have to be built into the project — would likely equal the cost of giving the trains access through Middlebury during construction.

“We are trying to deal with (daily train traffic during construction) by providing the right kind of crossing, or flaggers,” Finger said.

At this point, officials are estimating the work will span three construction seasons. But the project has proved to be a moving target for several years. Finger noted the project cost was originally placed at around $18 million and was seen as involving little more than sliding some concrete box segments into a trench to form the tunnel.

But further scrutiny of the site by engineers has revealed the need for a far more involved undertaking requiring, among other things, a sophisticated drainage system and specific tunnel clearance requirements prescribed by federal agencies.

Officials are currently planning for a tunnel clearance of 21 feet, five inches, compared to the current 18 feet, 6 inches. The tunnel will have to accommodate modified double-stack train cars, though Amtrak’s specific plans for passenger rail service along Vermont’s western rail corridor have yet to gel.

Middlebury’s rail overpasses project is now estimated to cost $45 million to $55 million. Officials have yet to decide whether the Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses will be closed and worked on simultaneously, or one at a time.

“We are hoping the town gets to participate before that decision gets made,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George said.

Finger said due to public safety factors the state is committed to doing the project in spite of the ballooning price tag. Concrete chunks continue to fall from the two overpasses, and workers routinely have to chop chunks of ice from the rails to ensure smooth passage of trains, according to Finger.

It was in 2008 that downtown Middlebury had to be evacuated as a result of the derailment of a train with fuel cars, an accident that fortunately did not result in any casualties or an environmental catastrophe. The rail line runs near the Otter Creek in spots through Middlebury.

“It is absolutely necessary that we do this project,” Finger said. “It’s a hazard, and has to be fixed.”

And when it’s fixed, Finger believes it will have been worth the inconveniences.

“When it’s done, it will be great,” Finger said. “The more cooperation we get, the faster it will get done.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100