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Extra $1 million pledged for new RR tunnel project

MIDDLEBURY — State and federal authorities have found an additional $1 million to help fund a new concrete tunnel to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row railroad underpasses, which now leaves the town just $500,000 short of covering expenses for its preferred project option.
This comes as good news to boosters of the proposed tunnel project, estimated to cost between $14.6 million and $17.4 million. Town officials and many commenters at public meetings have touted the tunnel project because — in addition to replacing the two deteriorating rail spans — it would create some extra surface area in the downtown by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and the town green.
Middlebury selectboard members and the Vermont Agency of Transportation have already endorsed the tunnel plan. But Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officials last month announced that that while they like the tunnel plan in concept, they could not extend federal dollars to the tunnel segment that would be installed between the two bridges. That left funding $1.5 million short.
“The state’s obligation is to maintain repair of the bridges as bridges, to basically replace them in kind with a bridge structure,” project Manager Bill Finger said. “The idea of a tunnel came up and it became a question about whether it was absolutely necessary to create a tunnel. The FHWA initially determined that an acceptable alternative was to build the bridges at a lower cost.”
But Finger announced some good news last week. He said Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles was able to convince the FHWA to increase its participation by another $1 million. And state and federal officials have agreed to cap the town of Middlebury’s financial exposure to $500,000, according to Finger.
Ultimately, the town could emerge without having to pay any money if the project estimates go down or if Middlebury can tap into other funding sources, Finger noted.
“The town is going to look at ways to fund the $500,000,” Finger said. “What the town ultimately ends up with is vastly improved aesthetics and mechanics of the downtown, restoration of the green and whatever accouterments go along with that. I would say it’s a pretty big win for the town.”
It remains to be seen where the town would come up with $500,000. Officials hope they could get some of the money through sidewalk and/or pathway grants relating to the new downtown surface area that would be created by the tunnel. There’s also talk of establishing an Addison County Transit Resources bus stop on the newly created surface, an amenity that would also be eligible for grant money.
Officials would not rule out having to ask voters for at least a portion of the $500,000.
“We aren’t committing to putting town money into it, but at the same time, we want to get the best result,” selectboard Chairman Dean George said. “I wouldn’t want to rule out (asking the public for money), but I would say it’s a long shot.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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