MIDDLEBURY — Engineers are plowing head-on into planning for the replacement of the Merchants Row and Main Street railroad overpasses, a project they said would be accomplished with unprecedented rapidity and with what they hope will be minimal disruption to local businesses.
That was the basic message delivered on March 28 by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB) representatives to around 80 citizens, merchants and municipal officials who assembled at the Town Hall Theater for a “local concerns” meeting. It was a gathering at which VHB engineer Mark Colgan described a state- and federal-mandated process that’s expected to lead to replacement of the two deteriorating spans, hopefully within two years.
“The schedule is accelerated and very aggressive,” said Colgan, who also worked on Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge project.
“We are going to be moving very quickly.”
The rapidity of the project is being driven by the sorry condition of the bridges, as well as Middlebury’s selection as the first Vermont community to take part in a new federal program that expedites capital projects in towns with a proven track record in such endeavors. Middlebury developed that track record through construction of the Cross Street Bridge, completed in less than two years using creative financing.
Colgan said Middlebury will be able to use a “construction manager-general contractor model” that will allow for a contractor to be brought onto the scene before the construction phase of the project. This allows the contractor to be involved all the way through design and building. This differs from the conventional system that requires projects receiving state and federal funds to use a design-bid-build process. That system brings the contractor in at a later stage of the project and can lead to changes in design and construction — which can in turn lead to delays and additional costs, Colgan said.
“This is a really good fit,” Colgan said of the new streamlined process that the Middlebury rail bridge projects will follow. “It’s about getting (the project) right the first time.”
That’s an aspiration shared by the many businesses and commuters who are concerned about potential traffic snarls and lost parking spots during construction. Colgan acknowledged those impacts, though he said workers will look to keep inconveniences to a minimum and the new Cross Street Bridge will provide an important outlet while the railroad bridges are out of commission.
In addition, he noted the project will require some drainage improvements and the relocation of some utilities, work that will occasionally inconvenience property owners, according to Colgan.
“We want to minimize impacts,” he said.
While the two railroad bridges will be the primary focus of work, the project area will include a lengthy swath of rail line extending from the Otter Creek truss bridge (to the south), all the way to Elm Street to the north. Before construction wraps, workers will have excavated the rail bed in a gradual fashion along the entire stretch, in a manner that will provide for an additional three- to four feet of clearance under the two bridges. This, Colgan explained, will allow Amtrak to run double-stack cars under the bridges — something that cannot be done with the current spans.
Contractors will also need to widen the horizontal clearance for trains under the bridges, which will mean renovating or replacing the old stone walls that buttress the rail corridor downtown. This will be a tricky engineering task, as well as pose some delicate historic preservation questions.
And as if the project didn’t present enough challenges, it will have to be done in deference to freight traffic. That will mean staggering tasks and/or working with rail officials to suspend traffic in order to get construction done. Middlebury is a prominent point on the Burlington-to-Bennington line. Another point on the line — Rutland — is second only to Burlington as the largest freight hub in the state, Colgan said.
“There are daily trains and limited freight storage capacity in Burlington, so there are some challenges with the idea of closing off a bridge location for an extended period,” Colgan said. “If we shut down Middlebury, there’s quite a bit of effort to re-route down toward Bellows Falls and then up to White River Junction and to St. Albans and further north. There is quite a runaround for the railroad in shutting down traffic.”
The coming months will see VHB and the town of Middlebury — which will manage the project — work to meet a timeline that would call for construction to begin during the spring of 2014. Colgan said the timeline includes three phases:
• Project definition and alternatives evaluation. This will entail ruling out the options of leaving the bridges alone, or renovating them. It is expected to culminate in the selection of a “preferred alternative” that will be mapped out in concept, along with potential environmental impacts.
• Project design. During this phase, plans will be completed on the preferred design, with public involvement. This will include meetings with nearby property owners for the negotiation of right-of-way easements and any potential property acquisition.
• Construction. Colgan said this will occur with a lot of public outreach through e-mails, a communications officer and information posted on the town’s website. There will be an emphasis, he said, on stressing that downtown Middlebury is “open for business.”
Not encountering any substantial environmental issues will be key to getting the project moving on the speediest possible path, Colgan stressed. The necessity of having to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the project could add one to three years to the project, Colgan said. That’s why he is hoping the undertaking will be granted a “categorical exclusion,” which he said could limit the environmental study to two to three months.
Audience members inside the theater listened intently to Colgan’s presentation and asked several thoughtful questions, including whether the two spans would be replaced simultaneously and if a concrete tunnel linking the bridges was shaping up as the leading replacement option.
Colgan said planners have not ruled out replacing both bridges at the same time, and confirmed that a tunnel is shaping up as an option warranting more study. One audience member noted a tunnel would have the side benefit of closing a gap in the town park that could be seeded and enjoyed as more open space.
“I think a tunnel is appealing to a lot of people,” Colgan said, calling such a scenario a 50-50 proposition at this point.
He added there’s the potential that some work could be done at night, thereby reducing impacts on rail traffic and parking.
“It’s all on the table right now,” he said.
“Not everyone will get what they want,” he added. “We will do the best we can.”
VHB officials handed out some electronic clickers to audience members that allowed them to express their feelings about elements of the project. A clear majority of respondents expressed interest in a “tunnel” option and cited parking as their number one concern.
Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington presented Colgan with sections of the town plan that relate to railroad bridges. The plan asks that the bridges be replaced in a manner that keeps streets and sidewalks pedestrian and bicycle friendly, that it be done with sensitivity to downtown parking, that the new bridges be “passenger rail ready,” and that the project afford the possibility of creating a safer and better access to the Marble Works shopping complex.
“The town plan has anticipated this for many years,” Dunnington noted.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]