Editorial: Potential harm to downtown derails Middlebury bridge project

After several years in the planning stage, just what would suddenly prompt members of the Middlebury business community to stridently oppose a $45 million to $55 million project to rebuild two deteriorating railway underpasses in the heart of Middlebury’s downtown?
The simple answer is “mission creep” of a magnitude that could seriously damage the viability of downtown businesses, and irreparably damage the fabric of the larger community.
But, aren’t the repairs needed? Didn’t the town request a proposed tunnel going over the railway to further enhance the town Green around Triangle Park? Hasn’t the town embraced the idea of better passenger rail service that would connect to Rutland, Burlington and Albany and on to New York City as a long-term boost to the town’s and region’s economy?
Well, yes, yes and yes. But what was once an $18 million project to repair two crumbling bridges and cap a short tunnel over the tracks between Main Street and Merchants Row has turned into a rail project that would enhance the railway bed to federal standards to accommodate Amtrak passenger trains and a freight train capable of toting double-decker cars that are unlikely to be used to any viable degree.
In speaking to the town selectboard Monday night, former president of the National Bank of Middlebury Ken Perine surmised that Middlebury’s need to replace the two overpasses provided an “opportunity for VTrans, Vermont Railway and the federal government to further their own agendas (to upgrade the tracks) with probable deleterious effects on our town.”
That is not to say the intent was underhanded, but that the political desire to build toward what Gov. Peter Shumlin and others have dubbed the “Western Corridor” found a ready vehicle to improve the tracks through downtown Middlebury with the bridge replacement project. At the time, the proposal was fine with the town as long as the impact was kept within the confines of what was originally envisioned — disruption for a single year that the town could manage. Most business leaders imagined the project would fix one underpass at a time, thus keeping either Merchants Row or Main Street open as the other bridge was being replaced. Replacement of the two short bridges and capping the span with a tunnel didn’t seem that ominous.
As such, town residents approved a $500,000 contribution at the 2014 Town Meeting for the town’s share of the project specifically dedicated to the tunnel.
What happened in the ensuing 15 months was the engineering complexities of the project—due to deepening of the rail bed to accommodate the larger and faster trains—added significant costs and time to the project. Suddenly, the town learned the project has grown from one to three years; that the downtown would be under siege 20-hours a day with both Merchants Row and Main Street closed at the same time and dust, blasting, drilling, bright night lights and construction debris making one the town’s main intersections almost uninhabitable. That downtown area includes the front of the National Bank, the Battell Block, the Town Hall Theater, a key entrance to the Marble Works, as well as the Congregational Church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, three restaurants, a coffee shop, several businesses plus the historic Middlebury Inn and Inn on the Green. And that doesn’t include making transportation to several other businesses on the other side of the Battell Bridge difficult to get to for much of a full year, or the loss of 50 parking spaces.
Adding insult to injury, Vermont Railway would be held harmless during the construction of the tracks for any loss of business due to delays or detours or any other minor issue, while no funds would be available to local businesses that suffered loss of business. Astounding.
Bill Finger, who also managed the successful Cross Street Bridge project to wide acclaim, has been the town’s liaison on this project. In previous comments he has protested that the process, while difficult, has considered many of these issues, but that existing laws and federal funds have worked against the town. He also admits to being frustrated by the changing scope of the project and the lack of detail that still haunts business owners trying to plan for the impending disruption. In letter to the editor a week ago, however, he essentially said that project leaders had thoroughly considered the issues, but the current proposal was simply what the process wrought and the town needed to steel itself for a very difficult time.
That, however, is precisely why the business community and town officials must fight back as vigorously as possible. The process is unreasonably stacked against the town, and the result could have serious and unintended consequences. We need the state and, perhaps, our congressional delegation, to help right a flawed system.
The good news is it’s not too late to resolve most of these issues, and that’s the purpose of the selectboard’s letter to Vermont Sec. of Transportation Sue Minter. With the state and Vermont Railway working with the town to resolve these issues, there’s hope a revised project can proceed on schedule.
But the town is right to drawn a line in the sand demanding that the vitality of Middlebury’s downtown and larger community is not irreparably damaged by this project.
That may mean that Vermont Railway is asked to detour around Middlebury during phase one of the project. It may mean that the state seek a federal waiver so the track depth underneath the tunnel and bridges doesn’t have to accommodate double-decker train cars (thus greatly speeding up the construction process and eliminating a significant amount of blasting of ledge). It may mean consolidating the construction project into a single year and demanding compensation for lost business on the same scale afforded Vermont Railway.
Whatever the solutions to each quandary, the outcome must be a project that does not deal crippling blows to Middlebury’s downtown or destroy part of the community fabric. Disruption and inconvenience can be tolerated, even survived, if managed and carefully considered. The current proposal, however, fails to sufficiently consider the lasting harm it would cause.
To that end, the next steps should be to stop the current plan, reassess its shortcomings and revise.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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