Middlebury may go it alone on new bridge

January 25, 2007
MIDDLEBURY — Faced with what they said have been numerous roadblocks thrown up throughout the years by state officials, Middlebury selectmen are exploring whether the community can build a new in-town bridge on its own.
“This is uncharted territory, and it’s a course that we cannot at all be sure where it will lead,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said on Tuesday. “It may in the end show that it is not a viable path. But we do not feel, at this point, that we have any good options trying to continue on the standard course — working with the state. We are not being supported there, and it doesn’t look like we will gain support in any reasonable time.”
Middlebury officials have been lobbying for a new in-town bridge for decades, as a means of alleviating chronic traffic snarls in the downtown area. The latest plan calls for a bridge that would connect Main Street with Court Street, across the Otter Creek via Cross Street.
The in-town bridge project is not likely to get support this year from key players in Montpelier, including Vermont Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville, who confirmed earlier this month that he will emphasize repairs to the state’s existing roads and bridges before endorsing new projects.
News on the federal front is equally discouraging, as Congress and the Bush Administration have pledged to cut down on funding earmarks for major projects.
As a result, selectmen — with the aid of a consulting firm — will determine whether Middlebury can take on the in-town bridge as a local project. Selectman Dean George, chairman of the Middlebury Bridge Committee, said the town could consider “breaking the project up into segments, as a way of making it more affordable and time-efficient.”
Project managers could then prioritize planning, funding and construction of the different segments — such as roads, intersections and the span itself. This could eliminate what bridge committee members called a slow moving engineering, design, review and permitting process that can occur under state oversight of major projects.
Selectmen also believe the town could be creative in funding a local bridge project. As an example, Tenny cited the possibility of the town floating a 50-year, $16 million bond to fund the in-town bridge plan. At current municipal borrowing rates that would translate into annual payments of roughly $650,000 during the life of the bond. During that time, the town could reduce that burden on local taxpayers by seeking other funding sources to draw down the bond — such as a “tax increment finance” district (TIF). A TIF uses the increased property taxes that a new real estate development generates to finance costs of new infrastructure.
In Middlebury, local officials theorized that a TIF scenario could be applied to future development of the town- and college-owned land behind the Ilsley Library, near Cross Street. In such a case, the increased property taxes derived from any new retail/office/commercial development on that land could be directed toward pay-down of an in-town bridge bond.
“Anybody who has watched how the state and the federal government pay for and construct, over an interminable period of time, major projects like Shelburne Road, you have to believe that we could do this more efficiently on a design-build basis… ” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. “I think this is a strategy that’s not only practical, it’s quite economical.”
Tenny said he has already contacted Paul Carrara of Carrara & Sons Inc. to determine whether that company could furnish a concrete bridge to suit the town’s needs.
“While he felt it was somewhat of a daunting prospect… he is quite willing to work with us to develop a bridge conceptual design direction and help us with the cost implications there,” Tenny said.
Selectmen said they will give residents an update on their in-town bridge efforts at the annual town meeting in March.
“It’s a daunting task, we all recognize, but at the same time, there are some tremendous benefits to going on our own,” George said.
In other action on Tuesday, Middlebury selectmen approved a 13-article town meeting warning that includes:
• A proposed 2007-2008 municipal budget of $6,383,774. The budget calls for $5,055,275 to be raised from property taxes, which would require a 4.8-cent increase in the current tax rate of 69.5 cents. The 2006-07 budget was $6,086,783. The proposed budget represents an spending increase of $296,991, or 4.9 percent. A public hearing on the proposed budget was held during Tuesday’s meeting, but no one from the public spoke or raised questions and the select board adopted the budget proposal unanimously.
• A proposal to earmark $30,000 toward operation of a new Middlebury teen center.
• A plan to boost the property tax break for local disabled veterans from the current $20,000 of assessed property value to $40,000.
• A referendum encouraging state and federal lawmakers to simplify permitting rules for small-scale hydroelectric projects.
• A proposal to give the Friends of Middlebury Hockey the authority to use the town’s bonding capacity to make up to $700,000 in improvements to the Memorial Sports Center (with no impact on local taxpayers).
• A request to extend tax-exempt status to the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association for another five years.
The board rejected a petitioned resolution on bringing U.S. troops back from Iraq. Board members said the resolution was not germane to town business, and cited a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision they believe allowed them to take a pass on the petition.
Also on Tuesday, selectmen approved a temporary parking ban on Buttolph Drive, from the northerly bounds of Middlebury Commons to Brookside Drive. Selectmen cited spill-over of parked cars from sporting events at the neighboring Memorial Sports Center as a reason for the ban, which will be tried for 90 days. In the meantime, selectmen are hoping event organizers will direct sports center visitors to other nearby parking options, such as a state office lot.

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