Rail bridge project in downtown Middlebury takes shape

MIDDLEBURY — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s latest transportation budget envisions a cost of $9,013,833 for replacement of the deteriorating bridges that carry Main Street and Merchants Row over the railroad tracks in downtown Middlebury. Construction is anticipated sometime within fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, 2014.
The town of Middlebury is currently laying the groundwork for the major project, which will result in some traffic detours when workers replace the two 93-year-old spans in a manner that will allow for passenger rail service to travel along the state’s western corridor rail line.
“It’s going to be fairly complex,” said former Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger, recently hired as the local project manager.
“And it’s a pretty aggressive schedule,” he added. “(The Vermont Agency of Transportation) wants to get the project done.”
It is a schedule that will be expedited thanks to Middlebury’s selection for the Federal Highway Administration’s new Every Day Counts program, which provides a more rapid construction schedule for innovative infrastructure projects in communities with a proven track record. Middlebury, Finger noted, proved itself with the recent construction of the Cross Street Bridge, a $16 million undertaking completed in less than two years with a creative financing plan that included local option taxes and a substantial contribution from Middlebury College.
The Cross Street Bridge is expected to provide an important thoroughfare for traffic while the Main Street and Merchants Row spans are incapacitated, Finger noted.
“You can operate with just the Cross Street Bridge,” Finger said of the temporary traffic inconvenience.
Meanwhile, Finger and town officials have been busy tending to the many details that will need to be sorted out before construction can proceed.
The town recently executed an agreement with the Agency of Transportation for the project to be managed locally. Soon after, the community put out a request for qualifications from engineering firms interested in designing and planning the new bridges. Three engineering firms responded to the request, resulting in the selection of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., which also worked with the town on the Cross Street Bridge project. The town is currently negotiating a contract with VHB, which has offices in Ferrisburgh.
“I’m optimistic,” Finger said of the prospects for a pact with VHB. “There is not too much of a question.”
Once VHB joins the fold, company and town officials will meet with various stakeholders in the bridge projects. Those stakeholders will include property owners, rail officials and downtown merchants who will be affected by the work. Finger said the first meetings with those parties will begin next month.
It is through those meetings that engineers will refine the projects and come up with a “preferred alternative.” One alternative that has already been pitched calls for 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 between Triangle Park and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The top of the tunnel could be sodded and seeded.
Finger stressed that there is no leading design at this point, though it seems fairly certain that the bridges will not be replaced simultaneously and that the work will not result in a raising of the streetscape in the vicinity of the bridges, as some had feared. The final project will heavily depend on public input, logistics, permitting and, of course, funding — with the federal government covering 80 percent of the cost and the state covering the other 20 percent. And because the project will be heavily reliant on state and federal funding, Finger anticipates some permitting hurdles — probably more than the Cross Street Bridge project, which was not dependent on state or federal money.
“I think the pieces are starting to come together,” he said of the project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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