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Middlebury business leaders fear RR bridge project could hurt downtown business

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s downtown merchants and property owners want state and federal transportation authorities to substantially reduce the scope and timeline of a plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail overpasses, adding that disruption caused by the currently envisioned $50 million project could bankrupt numerous enterprises.
Former National Bank of Middlebury President G. Kenneth Perine on Monday sought to enlist the support of the selectboard in lobbying the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the Federal Highway Administration to downsize the rail overpasses project, which is now pegged to last three years and include a deepening of a lengthy section of the railroad bed in order to ensure proper drainage and increased height clearance for double-stack Amtrak rail cars.
Perine, speaking on behalf of “more than a dozen” business people and concerned citizens, said the group was prepared to unilaterally reach out to state and federal officials if the selectboard was not on the same page. And Bruce Hiland, manager of downtown Middlebury’s Battell Block, did not rule out court action.
“Swift and decisive action is imperative to halt this profoundly flawed project,” Hiland told the Independent. “Should the selectboard be unable or unwilling to do so, litigation may be the only prudent option.”
Middlebury officials have for more than a decade been lobbying for upgrades to the Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses, which have been steadily deteriorating to a point where concrete chunks are dropping onto the rail bed below. A few years ago, state and local officials — with the help of consultants — came up with a plan to build a 300-foot concrete tunnel that would replace the two overpasses at an estimated cost of $18 million. Some additional green space would be provided on the surface of the tunnel, connecting Triangle Park with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
But further scrutiny of the site by engineers revealed the need for a far more involved undertaking requiring, among other things, a sophisticated drainage system with a network of drilled pilings.
 Officials are currently planning for a tunnel clearance of 21 feet, five inches, compared to the current 18 feet, 6 inches. The tunnel would accommodate modified double-stack train cars, though Amtrak’s specific plans for passenger rail service along Vermont’s western rail corridor have yet to gel.
Middlebury’s rail overpasses project is now estimated to cost $45 million to $55 million and span three construction seasons, though planners believe the work could be organized in a manner that could confine construction in the downtown to one year. Related work to the north and south of the downtown would encompass the other two years.
Organizers have warned that the downtown construction will be very disruptive for up to 20 hours per day and include noise, dust, detours and parking headaches. Representatives of local businesses have raised concerns about surviving such disruption. The Town Hall Theater has been apprehensive about booking events after the scheduled April 2016 start of the project.
“The primary concern is the projected timeline,” Perine told the selectboard on Monday. “We feel (three years) is unacceptably long and the associated noise and disrupted parking threatens the life of downtown businesses, the livelihood of downtown property owners and the character of the town.”
Perine added downtown merchants and property owners have been frustrated by a lack of details about the project and the potential for the downtown portion to be completed in a year.
“We have seen no details or timeline for this plan and remain skeptical of it, especially when we hear about the possibility of replacing both bridges at once to accomplish this, a plan that would have a devastating impact on downtown Middlebury,” Perine said. “We are already seeing the impact of the proposed construction on future bookings for the Town Hall Theater.  THT is the canary in the coal mine. ”
Perine added that businesses have a limited capacity to deal with disruption to shopping patterns that could “force changes in consumer behavior that could be long-lasting and devastating to the existence of those businesses.”
Business owners acknowledge that the two rail overpasses need to be replaced due to safety issues, according to Perine, but “don’t understand why a relatively simple bridge replacement has morphed into a complicated plan for track improvement, passenger rail service and modified double-stacked freight cars.”
Middlebury’s need to replace the two overpasses, Perine said, appears to have provided an “opportunity for VTrans, Vermont Railway and the federal government to further their own agendas with probable deleterious effects on our town.”
The Middlebury selectboard on June 23 sent a letter to VTrans Secretary Sue Minter expressing concerns about the project.
“We write to express urgency for the replacement of the Main Street & Merchants Row Railroad Overpass Bridges in the Town of Middlebury, given their severely deteriorated condition, while sharing our growing concern about the preservation of the vitality of our downtown during what is currently estimated as an intense three-year project for replacement of the bridges,” reads the letter, which also requests a meeting with Minter.
“We are eager to work with project engineers, the railway and Agency of Transportation staff to identify ways to significantly reduce the duration of the project and would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to fully outline our concerns and discuss expediting this critically needed project while supporting and enhancing our thriving downtown,” the letter continued.
Minter was away from her office this week and could not be reached for comment. But Rich Tetreault, chief engineer for VTrans, said there are still opportunities for the project price tag and timeframe to be reduced before construction next spring.
“We are always looking at ways to re-scope it, within reason,” Tetreault said.
That process will continue with an upcoming meeting between VTrans officials (including Minter) and the Middlebury selectboard. That meeting was scheduled for July 23, but had to be postponed due to the anticipated absence of some key people, according to Tetreault. He said efforts are now under way to reschedule that meeting.
And when it does occur, members of the business community want a seat at the table, Perine said.
Selectboard Chairman Dean George said the business community will be included in discussions about the rail overpasses project. He urged the group to work with the town and refrain from unilaterally contacting state and federal lawmakers to air their grievances.
Perine responded that the group is willing to work with the town, but cautioned that there is a lot at stake and that time is of the essence.
“If there is no action, we intend to go forward,” he told the board.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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