Downtown Middlebury disruptions expected from rail bridge work

MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury businesses and property owners on Thursday, March 28, will have a chance to air their concerns about the loss of parking, construction noise and traffic detours that will arise during the upcoming replacement of the railroad overpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row.
Project engineers will outline the project challenges and accept feedback at the meeting, to begin at 6 p.m. in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater — one of several downtown businesses that will experience some inconveniences during construction that is expected to begin during the spring of 2014 and last into that fall. It is a process through which the two, 93-year-old deteriorating spans will be replaced by modern versions that will be designed, with public input, during the months ahead.
“I think everyone would agree these bridges need to be done,” said former Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger, recently hired as local manager for the bridge project. “The issue is how to deal with parking while (construction) is going on.”
Indeed, work is expected to temporarily knock out several parking spaces in a downtown where it is already a challenge to find a spot during certain times of the day. Main Street and Merchants Row are two of the most sought-after parking areas. And Merchants Row has the added distinction of hosting the Addison County Transit Resources bus stop and thus draws a decent number of pedestrians.
“Overall, I think people are aware that parking is going to be an issue and that we will have to do the best we can,” Finger said.
Folks driving or walking through the downtown have already been seeing portents of the work to come. Surveyors have been confirming property lines and rights of way, while work crews have been taking soil borings in the project area to determine the depth of bedrock. And Finger noted officials with the recently hired engineering firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., known as VHB, have been researching the history of the two bridges and the railroad in general at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. The Vermont Department of Historic Preservation is also being consulted, as the bridges are located in the vicinity of some important, venerable structures, including St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Battell Block.
The railroad right of way was established back in 1849, Finger noted, so planners want to make sure that no structures have encroached on that area during the past 160 years. There is also a series of small retaining walls along the section of railway through downtown Middlebury that were installed through the years. These retaining walls have to be documented, as do the variety of abutments and other railway infrastructure that has historic significance.
“There are several layers of investigation that might be required,” Finger said.
At the March 28 meeting, project organizers expect to hear concerns about how construction will affect shoppers’, diners’ and tourists’ abilities to access businesses. And organizers have already gotten a small taste of what is yet to come. Work recently shut down several parking spaces on Merchants Row during the soil boring process. That did not sit well with Steve Dow, owner of Steve’s Park Diner on Merchants Row.
“The communication wasn’t good,” Dow said.
But he added the crews did apologize after the fact.
Dow and many other business owners are accepting the fact that times will be tough during the height of construction, part of the price that will have to be paid for getting some new bridges.
“It’s going to be disruptive,” he said. “But I think we’ll be fine, as long as the communication keeps up.”
Drainage will also be of prime concern for property owners in the area. The work will involve lowering the rail bed to provide greater clearance for double-stack passenger rail cars that are expected to eventually make runs from Bennington to Burlington. Work on the rail bed will be tricky, according to Finger, as it will have to be done in way that will maintain the two freight trains per day that travel along the line.
“You basically do a small section at a time, restore it to allow the train to go by, then repeat,” Finger said.
The good news is that the project will have a local manager (Finger) and will be run in accordance with a new federal Every Day Counts program, designed to expedite infrastructure upgrades in communities with a proven track record. Middlebury won selection for the program after proving itself through 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 outlet for traffic while the Main Street and Merchants Row spans are incapacitated.
Once the March 28 meeting is held, organizers will turn their attention to selecting a general contractor for the bridge projects. He expects the contractor will be on board by early June.
“It’s moving fast,” Finger said of the project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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