Middlebury train tunnel project hits a wall

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury will probably have to find $1.5 million to bridge the funding gap between its preferred option of using a tunnel to replace two deteriorating downtown railroad spans, versus what the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is willing to invest in such a project.
That’s the latest word from Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials, who recently met with their FHWA counterparts to discuss the upcoming replacement of Middlebury’s railroad overpasses on Merchants Row and Main Street.
Middlebury, with the assistance of the engineering firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., has spent the last several months considering replacement options for the two heavily traveled spans.
After a lot of public feedback, a preferred option rose to the top of the list: Replacing the bridges with a concrete tunnel that would allow enough clearance for double-stack rail cars while giving the downtown some extra surface area by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and the town green.
Cost of the tunnel is estimated at $14.6 million to $17.4 million, depending on vertical clearance and related issues. Simply replacing the bridges is estimated to cost between $13.1 million and $15.9 million. The project is eligible to be covered exclusively with state and federal money.
But FHWA officials have indicated that while they support the tunnel plan in concept, they cannot extend federal dollars to the tunnel segment that would be installed between the two bridges.
“(The FHWA) would consider that element of the project a betterment that would not be eligible for federal funding participation,” wrote Patti Coburn, a member of VTrans’ Program Development Division who spoke with FHWA officials, in a letter to the Middlebury selectboard.
The amount the feds won’t cover for the tunnel project amounts to around $1.5 million — money the state doesn’t have in its budget, according to Coburn.
“We recognize the tunnel does have benefits to the community that are not easily articulated and go beyond engineering considerations,” Coburn said. “VTrans management was consulted to determine whether state funding for the betterment was an option. In general, the use of state transportation dollars is maximized when used as a match to federal dollars. The decision was made that the state would not be able to consider funding the betterment without a federal match due to a need to address other transportation priorities within the state.”
Middlebury officials on Tuesday reiterated their support of the tunnel concept and vowed to look for the additional funding to make the project a reality. Funding sources could include state and federal grants for transportation projects related to the tunnel. For example, the newly created downtown space atop the tunnel could host a pedestrian-bike pathway and/or an Addison County Transit Resources bus stop that could be eligible for transportation funds.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and local project manager Bill Finger hammered home that point in an August 8 meeting with Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles.
“The town made it clear the tunnel remains the preferred alternative for Middlebury and believes the tunnel is also the state’s preferred alternative,” Finger said in a written statement on the matter. “The town is confident the state will make a concerted effort to find funds necessary to complete the tunnel. At the same time, as funding is sought, more detailed design work may result in some cost reduction.”
Work on the project is tentatively scheduled to begin next spring.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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