Ideas sought to reduce impacts of Middlebury RR tunnel project

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials last week identified next April as the start-up time for the estimated $50 million reconstruction of the community’s two downtown rail overpasses, a project they again stressed would be messy, noisy and inconvenient during up to three years of work that will ultimately yield additional green space near St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and a concrete tunnel that will someday accommodate double-stack train cars.
Bill Finger, local manager of the project, told a group of downtown merchants, property owners and citizens assembled at the municipal gym on June 3 that he expects work to proceed at a clip of around 20 hours per day, though it remains uncertain whether it will be a five- or seven-day work week. He urged local stakeholders to suggest ways of mitigating project impacts and solicited volunteers for a committee that will seek to market the downtown’s offerings during some challenging times.
Those construction-related challenges will include the loss of an estimated 50 downtown parking spots and disruptive noise as the Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses are demolished and replaced with the tunnel. The work will also include what Finger stressed are essential drainage and rail track upgrades.
“(The two rail overpasses) are in horrible shape and dangerous condition, to be honest,” Finger said of the two aging spans that are regularly shedding concrete in chunks. He spoke of how freezing water on the rail bed has to be chipped away during winter months to allow freight trains to pass through safely. It was in 2007 that a fuel-bearing train derailed in downtown Middlebury, tipping 17 cars off the tracks and resulting in a spill of around 10,000 gallons, according to Finger.
“The potential was there for horrible things to happen,” he said.
“The conclusion is, there’s no question whatsoever that this project is necessary,” Finger added. “It’s how we get there that’s the problem.”
He noted the fix was once envisioned as pretty straightforward — remove the two overpasses, dig a trench, slip in a concrete tunnel box then top it, for around $10 million.
But ensuing estimates and engineering studies produced a “price tag about five times that, at this point,” Finger said.
Contractors are now projecting a three-year construction timeline that could be divided into three geographic areas and phases, Finger explained. Of prime concern is the “center section” of the project that will involve the crux of the downtown work, including the noisy drilling of dozens of pilings and direct work on the tunnel. Finger said he hopes this work can be done as quickly as possible in one year, followed by related work at the two ends of the project footprint — near the Otter Creek at one end, and in the Elm Street vicinity at the other.
“What we are hoping to do is get the center section done in one season to minimize major disruption downtown,” Finger said.
How disruptive? He again offered this candid prediction:
“It is not simple; it is complex,” he said. “It is not clean; it will be dirty and dusty. It is not quiet; it will be noisy. It will not be dark at night; it will be bright in places.”
Finger added the project “will require everyone’s patience, cooperation and creativity.”
Town officials, he said, are looking at ways to mitigate inconveniences of the project, including parking. For example, officials are considering rental of a temporary parking structure to make up for the 50 spaces that will be lost during construction. Finger noted the construction might temporarily make a portion of Main Street one-way, thus creating potential for some additional parking from Printer’s Alley to Cannon Park. Others at last Wednesday’s meeting suggested temporarily creating more parking in the Marble Works complex.
Some local merchants stressed the importance of maintaining continuity in parking.
“If you don’t have parking, you don’t have tourists,” said Middlebury resident Bruce Baker, who with his wife, Nancie Dunn, owns the Sweet Cecily store on Main Street.
Baker stressed that any temporary parking structure should be placed in a visible downtown location, or it might not get a lot of use.
Former Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington suggested the town consider parking fees in part as a means of encouraging more turnover of downtown spaces. He pointed to a recent Middlebury parking study indicating the downtown has adequate parking, but the spaces aren’t turning over as often as they should. The community has with limited success encouraged downtown workers to park in more peripheral municipal lots, such as in Frog Hollow.
“There are enough spaces if we can displace people working in the downtown,” Dunnington said.
Doug Anderson, executive director of the Town Hall Theater, voiced concerns about the timing of heavy construction, which could disrupt drama and music productions at the Merchants Row theater.
“I can’t book anything now after April (2016),” Anderson said of the current uncertainties of the construction timetable.
Seymour Street resident John Fitzpatrick asked how local homeowners would be compensated for any damage they sustain as a result of blasting in the neighborhood. Fitzpatrick noted his home suffered some damage from construction-related vibrations associated with the Middlebury firehouse project a few years ago.
“It would seem this project could cause a lot more vibrations, particularly if there is blasting,” Fitzpatrick said.
He asked if there will be a seismographic log kept to measure the impacts of blasting. Finger replied there will be some seismographic monitoring devices set up near St. Stephen’s, the Battell Block and the National Bank of Middlebury headquarters on Main Street, but he encouraged residents to keep records of any property damage they believe to have been caused by the rail overpasses project.
Vermont Rail is seeking to maintain train traffic flow during the course of the project. Some participants at the June 3 meeting asked if the train operators would be asked to make some concessions in a manner that might quicken the train project.
“The railroad knows they are a major beneficiary of this whole (project),” Finger said. “They are part of the team; maybe not as much as we want them to be.”
Finger invited people to submit project comments and suggestions to [email protected].
“Any ideas are reasonable,” he told the crowd.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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