Community forum: The bridges in Middlebury are falling!
Bruce Hiland’s letter published in the July 2 edition of the Addison Independent reflected the concerns of the Middlebury community about the looming impact of a very large and complicated project that will soon take place in the heart of downtown. I am writing this as someone who shares Mr. Hiland’s concerns and as someone who has been intimately involved with this project from the get go as local project manager (LPM) working for the town of Middlebury and with VTrans. (Please note that the opinions expressed herein are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the Middlebury selectboard.)
The problem is clear. There are two threats to the safety and viability of downtown. The Main Street and Merchants Row bridges carrying vehicles and pedestrians over Vermont Railway tracks are in a state of virtual collapse and the railway itself is in a marginal state of safety while we await replacement of the bridges. We all revel in the success of the Cross Street Bridge project that was funded solely by local taxes and a very generous donation from Middlebury College. That project was anticipated to cause major disruption during construction — disruption that generally did not occur due to careful and methodical planning by the town, engineers and contractors. The Cross Street Bridge success was enhanced by the understanding, cooperation, patience and creativity of the community as a whole and particularly the business community.
The Cross Street Bridge project pales in comparison when we contemplate replacement of the two highway bridges downtown and upgrade of the railway. The bridge replacements and railway clearance adjustments themselves present highly complex engineering challenges, in addition to working in close proximity to historic buildings, installing drainage structures to properly drain and keep safe both highway and railway infrastructure while maintaining access for vehicles, pedestrians and businesses throughout. It is a tall order indeed. Preserving the economic integrity of downtown has always been, is, and will always be the primary concern and will remain at the top of every meeting agenda and discussion. Last spring when the project design finally took on an estimated cost and duration, the challenges above grew even larger.
The present project design, and revisions to that design that may be made to significantly reduce construction time and perhaps cost, is the product of multiple iterations by highly qualified planning and design engineers, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (engineering and design of Cross Street Bridge and major projects throughout the East Coast); Hatch Mott & McDonald (tunnel construction expertise and a portfolio of major engineering projects nationwide); Patrick Engineering (a major civil engineering firm providing independent cost estimating (ICE) services for this project); contractors Kubricky Construction (contractors who built the Cross Street Bridge); and Engineers Construction, Inc. (substantial experience in rail construction and relocation) in addition to the substantial engineering capacity and experience of VTrans.
The project must also pass muster with the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railway Administration. At every step of the process there are multiple opinions presented and discussed. The final design will be a highly filtered consensus of the ideas of some of the nation’s very best engineers.
The town’s goal has been and still is to limit the downtown (i.e., Merchants Row and Main Street) portion of the project to no more than one year. While the entire project from Water Street to Elm Street may involve multiple construction seasons, the direct downtown disruption would not extend throughout construction. This does not mean that everything will be fully restored to its former or newly finished state. It does mean that traffic flow and most parking would be restored and back to “normal” after one year.
The bridges are still falling!
While Mr. Hiland eloquently and dramatically describes what he sees as potential disaster, reflecting all of our frustrations at the seemingly slow pace of planning and design, I, with all due respect, would like to see our current dilemma as a real opportunity for the town of Middlebury to face and correct several long-standing deficiencies and build a better downtown for the next 100 years.
· In this case, calling for a “second opinion” will only be a cause for more delay. ?
· More delay could result in emergency closure of one or both bridges, requiring installation of some version of “temporary” bridges. ?
· Rail traffic diversion is a highly complex matter, not simply sending freight cars and locomotives down one track and up another. Construction time is determined more by construction of the walls and abutments required than by lowering and raising track. Track adjustment will not be required on a daily basis. ?
· The trains are traveling through downtown Middlebury daily as we speak. They travel on tracks and ties that are virtually under water (ice in winter). The major derailment that happened approximately 8 years ago was caused by a flaw in the rail. Before tracks are adjusted, new drainage will be in place and the adjusted rails will be inspected daily before trains pass. That sounds safer to me than the existing track situation. ?
· There are federal and state rules and regulations in place that govern compensation for property or business loss. While VTrans may not have had experience in a situation exactly similar to Middlebury, it has administered many projects in downtowns where business loss claims have been made. VTrans will no doubt draw on this experience and, in fact, some new ground may be broken in Middlebury on these issues. ?
Let’s all work together as a community to find ways to market our downtown and keep folks coming to Middlebury. Middlebury’s creative minds will find ways to maximize use of existing parking that can offset parking losses downtown and encourage use of ACTR’s substantial resources for public transit into and out of downtown as well as circulation within.
We are making progress and working together we will succeed.