MIDDLEBURY — Local, state and Vermont Railway officials are exploring the concept of installing a concrete tunnel beneath the railroad bridges at Merchants Row and Main Street in downtown Middlebury.
This new tunnel, officials believe, could provide a perfect fix for the two ailing bridges while allowing enough vertical clearance to accommodate double-stack freight cars that railway officials need to run from Whitehall, N.Y., to Burlington.
“It seems like (a tunnel) is a solution that meets everyone’s needs,” Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said on Monday.
Middlebury selectmen and Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials have spent the better part of four years discussing possible fixes for the structures that support Merchants Row and Main Street as they pass over the railroad tracks. Those overpasses are rapidly deteriorating and are on the VTrans construction to-do list.
Trouble is, the leading repair scenarios have called for raising both Merchants Row and Main Street at the bridge locations. It’s a scenario that Middlebury leaders find unacceptable because it would disrupt current sidewalk and pavement schemes on the two busy streets by placing the roadbed above the sidewalks in places — also posing a potential hazard to pedestrians.
VTrans and Vermont Railway officials had proposed the raised roadbeds on Merchants Row and Main Street because they need to raise the clearance under the underpasses to a minimum of 21 feet to accommodate the taller double-stack freight cars the industry has moved to during the past decade.
The current clearance is around 18 feet, and digging the rail bed deeper under the bridges had not previously been seen as a viable option because solving the drainage issues would be costly.
The current proposal calls for digging the roadbed down to an appropriate depth to accommodate a 600-foot concrete tunnel spanning the length of the two underpasses. The project was described by Vermont Railway President David Wulfson in a Sept. 11 letter to Transportation Secretary David Dill:
“The rail infrastructure would be excavated and pre-caste concrete boxes with direct fixation rail track would be installed,” Wulfson wrote in his letter. “This fix would resolve the long-term chronic town bridges and rail issues concurrently. This proposal would also eliminate the geotechnical concerns in the area.”
And it would also give downtown Middlebury a few hundred square feet of extra real estate. That’s because the tunnel would fill in a currently open spot behind Triangle Park that extends to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Town officials said that area on top of the tunnel could be sod and seeded.
“It seems like a fascinating idea,” said Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny, though he cautioned, “it’s expensive.”
Indeed, Wulfson has tentatively estimated the project at $7 million, a sum he suggested would “create local jobs for the area.” Wulfson suggested that a large portion of the project might be financed with federal economic stimulus money.
Since the Legislature has already placed an emphasis on rail improvements along the state’s western corridor, Wulfson reasoned that it would make sense to include the Middlebury tunnel as part of the upgrades. The current estimate for the Whitehall-to-Burlington rail improvements is $38 million, according to Wulfson.
But not everyone is on board with that idea. If the state pursues a Middlebury tunnel, said John Zicconi, VTrans director of planning, outreach and community affairs, it will not be with federal stimulus dollars. He explained that the state’s project list for rail-related stimulus money can consist only of projects related to passenger service. Anything inserted in the application that appears to be intended for freight instead of passenger rail service, he surmised, would ruin the state’s chances of getting any rail stimulus money.
“You can’t take any chances,” Zicconi said, adding any irregularities could “get our entire application thrown out.”
That said, Zicconi believes the tunnel will get some serious consideration — along with more conventional repair solutions — for the Middlebury railroad spans. The work is to be done after the Cross Street Bridge and Pulp Mill Bridge projects are completed during the next few years.
“It’s a concept worth our while to explore … but nothing,” according to Zicconi’s interpretation of the federal legislation, “that could be tacked into the stimulus bill. It just means we’d have to fund it in another capacity.”