Cost balloons for Middlebury rail tunnel

MIDDLEBURY — Officials planning replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown railroad overpasses said construction is being delayed until next year after new information suggested the project could cost more than twice as much as originally forecast, and could take at least three construction seasons to complete instead of two.
The Addison Independent reported on Jan. 5 that the $18 million project would not be launched this spring, as originally planned. The project calls for the two deteriorating rail overpasses to be replaced with a 300-foot-long concrete tunnel, a project that would in turn create extra surface area by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and St. Stephen’s church on the town green.
The Middlebury selectboard and Vermont Agency of Transportation officials have been discussing a tunnel solution to the rail overpasses problem since 2009. Planning got into high gear around 18 months ago, and project development has reached 60 percent completion, noted Bill Finger, the local project manager.
The planning phase provided time for the town, its general contractor/construction manager (Kubricky Construction of Glens Falls, N.Y.), and an independent cost estimator (Patrick Engineering of Boston, Mass.) to develop more reliable financial estimates for the project, Finger said.
Officials got a jolt from the new estimates, which Finger said placed the work at “two to three times” the originally conceived price tag. That would mean a new cost of between $36 million and $52 million.
“Everyone was taken aback about the potential cost,” Finger said. “The next step is to try to figure out how to reduce the cost without affecting the objectives of the project.”
Asked how the latest price forecast could be so much more than the original, Finger replied that planners might have underestimated the complexity of the work to be done.
“We all started out at the beginning with the thought getting a pre-cast concrete box and sliding it through an existing slot there and lowering the tracks some was an ideal solution, and it was going to be a piece of cake,” Finger said. “I think the bottom line is, it’s not a piece of cake, and the costs reflect that.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for the cost adjustment is the time that planners now believe it will take to complete construction. They’re now looking at a project timeline that Finger said could run three or four years. Officials had been thinking the project — which figures to be quite disruptive to downtown traffic and commerce — would last two construction seasons.
“Time, obviously, equals money,” Finger said. “The type of construction here is very time-consuming. It requires drilling hundreds of holes, basically, to put in pilings that support the walls and the tunnel.”
Planners are now looking at ways to decrease the bottom line. For example, they might look at interrupting train traffic along the route; previous plans had envisioned sustaining train travel while work was ongoing.
“If trains were rerouted somehow for an extended period of time, would that have a major impact?” Finger said. “The answer right now is that it could have a significant impact, but not as big as a lot of people thought.”
Finger noted that reducing the project timeline will not only be key to limiting construction costs. It will also be pivotal in minimizing inconveniences for downtown merchants and shoppers.
With that in mind, the planning team is zeroing in on the portion of the project that most directly affects Main Street and Merchants Row, and seeing how the impact to those areas can be minimized. Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay has also sent out a request for proposals from marketing professionals interested in developing a plan to sustain downtown shopping during construction.
Fortunately, the higher cost estimate is not expected to kill the project, nor result in a downsized scope of work, according to Finger. The work is to be covered by federal and state funds. The town of Middlebury in 2013 voted to contribute up to $500,000 for some public amenities related to the project.
And postponing the project would only result in even higher construction costs in the future, and Finger said cutbacks are not being contemplated.
“There is no indication of that, at this point,” he said.
Finger believes state and federal officials realize the need to replace the two rail overpasses as a matter of protecting the public and allowing passage of larger, double-stack Amtrak cars. Amtrak and the state of Vermont have been adamant about improving freight and passenger rail traffic along the state’s western corridor.
“It’s a safety issue we are trying to deal with both for the railroad and the overpass,” Finger said. “It’s not getting any better over there. This is a critical project for the town, the railroad and the state. The safety issue is paramount, in my mind.”
Ben Wilson is president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, which advocates for businesses in the downtown area. He said the delay in construction prolongs what has been a period of uncertainty and trepidation for storeowners, but at the same time acknowledged the complexity of the project.
It’s an undertaking that Wilson said will be worth the wait if it can expand both passenger and freight rail service to Middlebury, result in safer overpasses, and doesn’t overburden the town during the construction process.
“I’m OK with the delay if it leads to a successful resolution,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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