Opinion: Rail project a major concern

I’ve become deeply concerned that the proposed railroad bridge/tunnel project may prove to be a disaster for Middlebury. The original objective was to restore safety to the Merchants Row and Main Street bridges. Now, two years later, the project has changed dramatically in scale, shape, character and cost. As currently proposed this project risks incalculable damage to downtown businesses, to downtown activities and consequently to the very fabric of our community. 
Middlebury officials recently confirmed that:
• Construction is planned to start next April and continue for (at least) 3 years … yet no specific construction schedule exists;
• 20-hour workdays are planned with accompanying noise, dirt and disruption;
• 50 parking spaces will be lost;
• Estimated costs have risen from an initial $10 million to $55 million;
• Vermont Railway intends to continue to run two trains daily through the work site carrying 300,000 to 350,000 gallons of gasoline.
Unlike the successful Cross Street Bridge construction, this vastly more complex and risky project is under the control of the state Agency of Transportation (VTrans), not the town.
VTrans has done NO research on the impact of a comparable project in Vermont or elsewhere. “Similar projects” cited, i.e. Richmond and Bellows Falls, are trivial in both complexity and risk compared to this project.
The state has done nothing to address community impact leaving local project management to form committees and ask for ideas to mitigate the project’s consequences.
If my physician told me I should have life-threatening surgery I would seek a second opinion. The town needs to do the same. Middlebury officials should call “time out” and demand creative engineers with relevant experience determine how to fix the two bridges without three years of damage and disruption.
For example, in 2007 in Oakland, Calif., a gas tanker crash/explosion destroyed a key freeway interchange. Facing an initial repair estimate of several months, city and state officials found the talent, know-how and imagination to restore the structure in less than 30 days. (See “McArthur Maze” in Wikipedia.) That’s precisely what Middlebury needs — talent, know-how and imagination.
Town officials should immediately take whatever steps necessary to insist that:
• Construction is completed within one year;
• Rail traffic is diverted around Middlebury;
• Businesses are compensated for their damages using the same standard as used for Vermont Railway.
In sum, the proposed project presents enormous physical and financial risks to Middlebury. SAFELY running two trains a day carrying 300,000-350,000 gallons of gasoline while those same tracks are being lowered is beyond imagination. Another absurdity is that buildings will be eligible for compensation if they are damaged but businesses occupying the very same buildings will not be compensated. To my astonishment we’re told that if Vermont Railway were to incur extra costs by re-routing their trains around Middlebury those costs would have to be added to the already sky-high project cost. If Vermont Railway warrants protection from financial losses why would our local businesses not be? 
The town’s paramount objective is to restore two bridges to safe condition. Our local officials have been presented with limited options for a highly complex, risk-laden project. Now it’s time to force the question: “If we knew then that the consequences to the downtown would be this dire, wouldn’t we have pressed for a better deal and not be the ones to effectively kill our own downtown?”
We need an answer before a shovel goes into the ground and we need to challenge the idea that railroad interests trump all others.
Bruce Hiland
Editor’s note: Hiland is manager/owner of the Battell Block and former president of the Middlebury Business Association (now the Better Middlebury Partnership).

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