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Middlebury rail project delayed again

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Posted on December 19, 2016 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — A four-year, $40 million overhaul of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges will be delayed for at least another year, in light of a decision by state and federal transportation authorities to submit the project to an Environmental Assessment.

Preliminary efforts to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges were slated to begin this winter, with work focusing on an associated drainage system and a temporary road to serve the Battell Block parking area. The most disruptive work had been scheduled for a 10-week period during the summer of 2019, when both the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges were due to be supplanted by a concrete tunnel.

Work is also to include excavating and improving the downtown rail bed; a major, temporary detour of Vermont Rail train traffic has been in the works to accommodate the project.

But the massive undertaking — once targeted for a 2014 start — is again on hold.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation announced on Thursday that it and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — the major funding sources for the plan — have determined the project must undergo a federally mandated Environmental Assessment. Authorities had previously determined the project could be exempted from such a comprehensive review, and it was thus awarded a waiver known as a “categorical exclusion” or CE.

But attorney James Dumont, representing a group of downtown merchants and property owners concerned about the $40 million project, argued the undertaking should not qualify for a categorical exclusion. He made his case in an Oct. 31 letter to Transportation Secretary Chris Cole.

“The FHWA regulation governing Categorical Exclusions prohibit use of CEs where projects involve ‘Construction of temporary access, or the closure of existing road, bridge, or ramps, that would result in major traffic disruptions,’” Dumont wrote to Cole. “No reasonable person would argue that the plans under consideration in 2013 or at present did not and do not involve closure of existing roads and bridges that would result in major traffic disruption.”

Dumont’s argument clearly resonated with VTrans and FHWA officials, who late on Wednesday, Dec. 14, informed Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter about the new delay and permitting requirements for the rail bridges project.

If the Environmental Assessment reveals any big concerns, an Environmental Impact Study will be needed.

Regarding the decision to delay, Cole had this to say in a press release:

“It is unfortunate that the collective efforts of so many can be sidelined by the threat of legal action. But rather than carry that risk into construction and potentially cost the taxpayers additional funds, VTrans and FHWA have elected to engage in an additional administrative process.”

In the VTrans press release, Carpenter affirmed the need for the EA.

“While we all understand the need for replacing our downtown bridges and improving the safety of the rail line, I think the decision to undertake an EA is right for Middlebury,” he said. “I have faith that our community will make good use of the additional time before construction to ensure that we are all doing everything we can to minimize the impact of construction on our businesses and on the quality of life in our unique community.”

Carpenter told the Independent that the project delay was “a minimum of one year, given the EA can not be accomplished in time for required ‘contract one’ winter work to occur this winter.”

“Contract one” consists of the aforementioned preliminary work on the drainage system and temporary access road to the Battell Block.

Though pleased with the requirement that the project will now have to go through an Environmental Assessment, Dumont said in a Thursday email to the Independent that he was concerned that it required correspondence and numerous public comments for authorities to acknowledge the key review.

“As a practical matter, for the residents of Middlebury and surrounding communities, for everyone who works or shops in downtown Middlebury, and for the many students who study here and whose families visit them here, the cold hard facts are that VTrans dropped the ball on this project several years ago by failing to address extremely important public safety, pollution and business preservation issues,” he said.

Dumont said he hopes officials will now consider a more modest and expeditious bridge replacement project.

Carpenter is suggesting the town take advantage of the delay to tend to some related work, such as an independent engineering assessment of the $40 million plan, to ensure that it is sound. As reported in the Thursday, Dec. 15, edition of the Addison Independent, the town ($5,000) and Middlebury College ($45,000) will jointly commission that independent assessment.

“I suggest we take this time to conduct the independent engineering assessment, to continue refining a downtown needs statement and make efforts to fulfill that, and to further our work on a Middlebury multimodal station,” Carpenter stated in his email. “I believe the state has everything it needs to let the contract for the Environmental Assessment, given they hold the funding authority now.”

In conclusion, Carpenter believes the project — while again delayed — is on the right track.

“We have mitigated the town’s financial and legal risks,” he stated. “We have a project design that vastly improves … town safety. Through this project, we have several collateral wins to the town in undergrounding more utilities, streetscape and Printers Alley improvements, and potentially help with preparing for passenger rail. The one area I’m not so comfortable with is environmental protection along our Otter Creek corridor. This finalizes documentation and analysis of those potential risks and ensures the project will include all necessary risk mitigation measures.”

Cole has told town officials that Jim Gish — Middlebury’s community liaison for the bridge project — will continue in that capacity through the delay period.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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