Railroad span plan takes hit

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials’ hopes of seeing a speedy replacement of the deteriorating railroad bridges at Main Street and Merchants Row have been dealt a serious blow by tight state and federal finances.
Both of the bridges were built in 1920, and both are showing substantial signs of wear and tear as they continue to bear heavy traffic loads traveling through downtown Middlebury.
While neither of the structures is posted, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has acknowledged the bridges’ deficiencies and has kept the spans on its replacement schedule — a schedule that has historically proven to offer somewhat of a moving target.
The most recent VTrans bridge inspection reports provided by Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, rate the Merchants Row span as “structurally deficient” and the Main Street span as being “functionally deficient.”
“The deck continues to deteriorate, full depth holes could occur in the sidewalks and parking areas,” reads the most recent, July 20, 2010 VTrans inspection report on the Merchants Row bridge. “The state should remove all loose concrete to prevent concrete from falling on the tracks or trains, and monitor the fascias and deck thereafter for any loose concrete.”
Analysis of the Main Street railroad span, last done Sept. 10, 2009, is not much better.
“This structure is in poor to fair condition,” reads the report. “The deck is in poor condition under the sidewalk, the parking areas and fascias. Abutment two budges out on the left end and is somewhat unstable. The pier columns consist of a concrete encased steel bents and caps. The fascia columns and caps are in poor condition, with lots of spalling in the concrete and heavy rust scale in the exposed steel bents. The bridge guard rail along the sidewalks needs replacing.”
State transportation officials had previously proposed replacing the bridges, but in a manner that would have required substantially raising both Merchants Row and Main Street to accommodate new, taller Amtrak cars. The town selectboard and business community strongly objected to such a scenario. Vermont Rail and state transportation officials have said that digging the rail bed deeper under the bridges has not been seen as a viable option because of drainage and other issues.
As an alternative, town, state and rail officials have embraced the concept of building a 600-foot, pre-cast concrete tunnel that would take the place of the two spans. The proposed tunnel would also fill in a currently open spot behind Triangle Park, near St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The top of the tunnel would be sod and seeded.
While the tunnel project has drawn community support, the prospects of getting federal and state funding for the estimated $15 million price tag are slim right now, according to Lanpher.
“My guess is it could be several years given the amount of money it will cost,” said Lanpher, a member of the House Transportation Committee. “What we are hearing from Washington D.C. is incredible.”
She pointed to potential federal budget rescissions that Lanpher said could take transportation funding levels back almost a decade. She noted a Congressional GOP version of the fiscal year 2012 budget that would cut paving, bridges and transit spending by almost 50 percent.
“That’s when our paving budget was around $30 million,” Lanpher said, noting the Legislature has authorized close to $80 million in paving for next fiscal year.
And Middlebury shouldn’t count on a federal earmark for the tunnel project, Lanpher said, as Congress will likely “cut way back” on such expenditures.
“It (the prospect of funding) is just so far off the table, I don’t know how that can come about,” Lanpher said.
Still, lawmakers have tried to keep the tunnel plan alive by taking two steps this session. First, they switched it from a highway project to a rail project, figuring such a move could enhance its chances for funding in this financial climate.
Second, lawmakers have budgeted $200,000 to further design and engineering of the tunnel.
“We will keep pushing in hopes of getting action sooner, rather than later,” said Lanpher.
Still, a lot of other projects will be competing for limited funds.
There are currently 322 “structurally deficient” bridges in the state of Vermont, of which 19 are in Addison County, according to Lanpher. There were 422 such bridges before the state enjoyed an infusion of federal stimulus money a few years ago, noted Lanpher, who added there are a total of around 2,700 bridges in the Green Mountain State.
Meanwhile, Middlebury officials continue to voice concerns about a potential long-term delay in replacement of the two downtown railroad bridges. The selectboard had hoped that completion of the new Cross Street Bridge last fall — producing a nearby crossing of the Otter Creek — would clear the way for the state to quickly tackle the two railroad spans.
“The vague promise from VTrans was, ‘we can’t do this until there is another way across the creek,’” Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said. “Now there is another way across the creek.”
A phone call made to VTrans Rail Director Joe Flynn on Thursday went unreturned as the Addison Independentwent to press on Friday.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said the two rail bridges constitute “a critical transportation link that is in disrepair.” He added that delaying work on the two spans was akin to “kicking the can down the road, and I think that is unsafe and unfair at this point.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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