Cole defines Middlebury rail project
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Chris Cole vowed to explore a variety of measures — including winter construction and weekend work stoppages — to make the upcoming replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges as quick and as painless as possible for local residents and merchants.
Cole, during a Feb. 18 interview at the Addison Independent that included the participation of other key planners of the $40 million project, also revealed that he has asked Vermont Rail Systems and New England Central Railway — which compete against one another — to try to come together on a plan to minimize train traffic through Middlebury during construction.
The current schedule calls for a section of train tracks to be disassembled and reassembled in Middlebury for each day of construction, in order to continue uninterrupted freight service along the western rail corridor. Cole wants the two companies to collaborate on a plan to divert rail traffic around Middlebury, and/or find temporary, alternative modes of transportation for freight currently being moved by train.
Transportation officials noted the rail bridges project could proceed in a speedier and less costly manner if train traffic through Middlebury could be temporarily halted. But Cole conceded he cannot force the rail companies to come to an accord.
“This is a very delicate negotiation involving one railroad that is at the mercy of another,” he said, indicating N.E. Central currently holds the upper hand.
While those negotiations play out, Cole, his colleagues and engineers continue to refine a project that is now slated to begin this coming September or October, with roughly four months of preliminary work.
That work will include installing a drainage system at the rail bed, constructing a temporary parking facility behind the Ilsley Library, and building an access road from Water Street to eventually tie into the parking lot behind the Battell Block in anticipation of the Merchants Row rail bridge coming down. Officials said the relocation of Addison County Transit Resources’ bus stop and shelter will also occur this fall.
That preliminary work, according to Cole, will be done during 10-hour workdays.
“It shouldn’t be a big disruption to the downtown,” Cole said of this year’s work schedule. “It will be off the streets.”
IMPACTS IN 2017, 2018
This fall’s work should have relatively little impact compared to the activity that will envelop downtown Middlebury beginning in April 2017, officials warned. That’s when the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges will be removed and replaced with a plan that will include a concrete tunnel.
“(2017) will be the most disruptive year for the community,” Cole said. “We want to work with the community … to minimize those impacts.”
Those effects will include 20-hour workdays marked by periodic noise, dust, detours and artificial lighting that many merchants fear will discourage shopping. Main Street residents and downtown inn owners are worried about sleepless nights while work is being done. Joe Perrigo, a project manager for VTrans, said work will probably be shut down most nights from midnight to 4 a.m.
Cole said VTrans and contractors will work with Middlebury to avoid construction on weekends. For example, he said, the final contract could be written in a way that could call for work stoppages from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons. This could help the Town Hall Theater on Merchants Row, which stages most of its performances on weekends. THT officials have worried about the nonprofit’s ability to weather the construction storm.
Cole warned, however, that the more the work schedule is tapered, the longer the project will drag on. Current plans call for the project to be completed by the end of 2018 — contingent on a decision to work through the winter of 2017-2018.
That 2018 work will include construction of retaining walls and other improvements along portions of the rail line immediately north and south of the new tunnel, according to Cole. He said he’s unsure, at this point, how disruptive that 2018 work (also involving 20-hour workdays) will be to downtown residents and merchants. VTrans officials note that work will include some blasting.
The rail bridges project will encompass 350 feet of tunnel and a total of 3,300 feet of rail track, from the Otter Creek truss bridge to the Elm Street bridge.
As reported in the Feb. 8 issue of the Independent, VTrans and the town of Middlebury have stopped lobbying for a 19-foot clearance threshold for the two bridges, as opposed to the planned clearance of 21 feet.
Local officials had hoped that a lower clearance would reduce the cost and duration of the project. But engineers revealed the lower clearance would only save $1.4 million and four weeks, according to Cole. Moreover, VTrans officials have concluded that while the spans will not have to accommodate double-stack rail cars, they will still need 21 feet of bridge clearance to serve auto carriers and “domed” passenger rail cars that Amtrak has in its fleet for high-visibility excursions.
Bruce Hiland is principal owner of the Battell Block, a major residential, office and retail hub in Middlebury near the the bridges. He called the VTrans decision to abandon its pitch for a lower clearance level for the bridges “a foolish one,” and listed major concerns about the project:
• “Reassurances by VTrans to limit ‘downtown disruption’ focus on traffic disruption but ignore the noise, worksite lighting, disorder and dirt that will be experienced by Middlebury residents, shoppers and visitors from project start in October 2016 to project finish — if all goes according to plan — in December 2018.”
• “Environmental risks during construction include blasting, tunneling and worksite contamination. The greater long-term threat to our environment will be from discharge into Otter Creek of drainage effluent and spillage from trains carrying hazardous materials.”
• “The need for expert counsel to negotiate air-tight construction contracts to assure protection of our community and enforcement of all commitments.”
The Vermont Rail Council reviewed Middlebury’s rail bridges project on Feb. 17. Selectboard Chairman Dan George was at that meeting and said the council spent around 30 minutes reviewing the plan. He said the town is now focused on getting the project done as quickly as possible.
Cole said he’s on board with that objective.
“We will leave no stone unturned,” Cole said. “I’ve challenged my rail staff to work with the railroad to see if we can increase the work windows.”
VTrans will help with signs and maps to inform people of detours and the best way to get to shopping areas, according to Cole. In addition, local project Manager Jim Gish will provide updates on construction and serve as a liaison between VTrans, the town and the contractors.
Meanwhile, Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu is applying for two United States Rural Development grants that could be used for technical assistance to businesses for marketing during construction, and to create a revolving loan program for small enterprises in the downtown affected by the project. Each program provides up to $50,000 in funding and requires a minimum match of $17,660, for a total potential project budget of $67,660.
Final design of the Middlebury rail bridges project is expected to be ready by this fall, according to Perrigo.
As previously reported in the Independent, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church — located a stone’s throw away from the Merchants Row rail bridge — has organized a grassroots effort to find ways to help those who will be affected by the massive construction project. The “Neighbors, Together” group met this past Sunday to brainstorm ideas.
Gish is now working with the owners and managers of historic downtown buildings — such as St. Stephen’s, the Battell Block and the National Bank of Middlebury — to craft a plan to measure, and correct, any damage those structures might experience as a result of the rail bridges project.
That plan will include a pre-construction survey of the buildings, which will ultimately be equipped with monitoring equipment while the work is being done. The rail bridges contractor will have to carry an insurance policy to cover any damages linked to the project, according to Gish.
Cole acknowledged the bridges project will be a bitter pill for Middlebury to swallow, but said the end result will be stronger bridges and a stronger community.
“If you think about it, the people who lived here 80 to 100 years ago had to put up with the disruption when those two bridges were first constructed,” Cole said. “And the people who live here now got to use that infrastructure that other people had to live through to get it built. They are going to be doing the same thing for a future generation.
“It’s sort of a roll of the dice, when you’re born, as to what you have to put up with when infrastructure needs to be redeveloped,” he added. “This is this generation’s turn, in Middlebury, to sacrifice for the future generation.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].