Railroad bypass of downtown pitched as solution in Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said this week that she is willing to look at new options for train service through Middlebury — including a bypass — but warned that the community’s two downtown rail overpasses are rapidly deteriorating and will need some form of repairs very soon.
Minter made her comments on Monday to the Middlebury selectboard and more than 50 downtown merchants, property owners and residents who voiced concerns about a proposed tunnel that would replace the Merchants Row and Main Street overpasses. Opponents fear that plan — estimated at $50 million to $60 million — could paralyze the downtown business climate for up to three years beginning next spring, as well as generate almost constant noise, dust and other disruption for those trying to eat, sleep and take in entertainment in Addison County’s retail hub.
Some at Monday’s gathering, like Town Hall Theater Executive Director Doug Anderson, urged VTrans to provide clarity as soon as possible on the scope and timing of the work.
“We are kind of apoplectic about this at the THT,” Anderson said of the prospect of construction-related noise and the temporary loss of parking, factors that have prompted THT staff to decline booking events past April 1 of next year. “We are suffering now and losing income right now because of this project … I’m asking for as much clarity as possible, as soon as possible.”
But others urged Minter and her colleagues to abandon the tunnel project altogether and consider, among other things, a rail bypass around the downtown. Local business owners such as George Dorsey, whose enterprises include Edgewater Gallery on Merchants Row, argued that a bypass would be a logical, safe way to divert hazardous freight away from the downtown, which in 2007 saw the derailment of a train with 14 fuel cars. It’s an accident that fortunately did not result in any casualties or an environmental catastrophe. But Dorsey said that if there is a next time, the town might not be as lucky.
“We have a railroad that runs by a hospital, two schools, buildings with residences and the (Middlebury College) president’s house, and the college,” Dorsey said.
“What I would like to suggest is that everyone take a deep breath,” he added. “The reason we’re here is because of a danger; and it’s a severe danger.”
Dorsey said his research revealed 22 derailments of Vermont Railway trains “in the recent past,” some of which involved chlorine, ammonia and gasoline. Of those substances, he called gasoline “the least dangerous.”
David Wulfson, executive director of Vermont Rail, said chlorine and ammonia are not being transported by rail through downtown Middlebury, though he did not rule out such cargo in the future.
“I don’t understand why everyone here is so dead-set on spending $55 million (for the tunnel), when you can do a bypass that would cost no more,” Dorsey said, arguing among other things that the needed rights-of-way could be taken by eminent domain because the project would be a matter of public safety.
Rich Tetreault, chief engineer for VTrans, disputed the figure of $55 million as it related to the proposed Middlebury bypass.
“That bypass would be more expensive,” Tetreault said, adding he believes the permitting alone would be more expensive than a Middlebury tunnel project, a factor that prompted VTrans officials to discount a bypass solution last fall.
“So what?” Dorsey replied in alluding to the public safety variables.
Dorsey said his company manages a rail facility for the Canadian government that includes around eight miles of track.
“It cost less than $55 million; it is not that expensive to do the bypass,” he said. “You’ll have a better experience and you’ll have fewer people at risk.”
Attorney Peter Langrock recalled being in his downtown Middlebury office at the time of the 2007 derailment.
“Had those (rail) cars gone up, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Langrock said. “Nobody in their right mind can believe that the present course of the railroad through Middlebury is the preferred course.”
Langrock and others noted that the rail lines’ cargo used to include such innocuous items as milk cans, hay and farm equipment. The cargo it now carries can be potentially explosive, they said.
“We have an opportunity here to do something for this community,” Langrock said of a bypass. “We can make this town a much better town, a healthier town and a safer town, by looking at alternative thinking outside of the box.”
He suggested VTrans and other organizers of the Middlebury project take six months to look at project alternatives.
“Let’s take a look at it before we spend $55 million on a Band-Aid fix,” he said.
The Rev. Susan McGarry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church spoke of the impact of having trains pass right near the historic place of worship on the town green. She said she fears the nearly 200-year-old church — as well as other historic downtown buildings — could be affected by construction work on a tunnel.
“Right now when I sit at my desk, every time a train moves by, my chair shakes,” McGarry said. “The corner of our building is 25 feet away from where the blasting is to happen. If the train shakes my desk, what is the blasting going to do to these historic buildings?”
Weybridge Street resident Jeffrey Lundstead said he, too, is concerned about the noise and shaking that the tunnel project would create. He noted that organizers are talking about 20-hour work days in order to get the tunnel done as quickly as possible.
“I can’t live on four hours of sleep per night,” Lundstead said.
David Donohue, special assistant to the president at Middlebury College, said the institution will closely monitor the rail project going forward.
“I continue to believe that we ultimately want the same things, which starts with safety and goes to economic impact,” Donohue said. “I’m here just to say a lot of the concerns expressed tonight are shared by the college, and I would ask that we take the time to get this right.”
Bruce Hiland is manager of the Battell Block, which houses several businesses on Merchants Row and Main Street.
“I am astounded that this project has gotten to the condition that it is,” Hiland said. “Over the years we have known about these buildings being in such terrible shape and we have known about the problems of the railroad. We have finally gotten to this point with a project that is on the table that calls for three years of disruption to this community.”
Hiland joined the chorus of those who urged VTrans to “get it right … It’s time to stop what you’ve got and start over. Let’s call a time-out and ask, ‘What are we trying to do?’”
TRAINS KEEP RUNNING
One of the more controversial provisions within the tunnel project has been continued passage — throughout construction — of two trains per day through Middlebury. Some have suggested that those trains be detoured to allow for speedier construction, but VTrans officials said on Monday that the state has no authority to mandate a detour.
Wulfson said the tunnel project would help the bridges comply with a federally mandated clearance for trains that has been set at 23 feet. Vermont Rail, among others, has worked to secure a waiver for 21 feet, 6 inches, for the two Middlebury rail spans. Wulfson said the project would also resolve a horizontal restriction for trains within the current project area.
“The current bridges here in Middlebury are the horizontal clearance restriction of our whole railroad,” Wulfson said. “We have one or two bridges that are lower than the bridges here.”
He specified a stone wall on the northern side of the tracks that juts out and limits clearance.
“That needs to be fixed,” Wulfson said, adding there are “drainage issues that have been there for years, and most of it is from the town’s deteriorating infrastructure. This is a chance to correct all that stuff.”
As for a bypass, Wulfson harkened back around seven years ago when Vermont Rail and Omya proposed a 3.3-mile rail spur that would have linked Omya’s calcium carbonate quarry on Foote Street to the main line west of Otter Creek. The Federal Highway Administration concluded in 2010 that the $34.3 million project could meet federal environmental standards. That project, however, has never gotten off the ground.
“Is (a bypass) going to be a town effort to get everyone together to say ‘We are going to put a bypass around Middlebury that makes sense for everyone?’” Wulfson said, noting past neighborhood opposition to the Omya spur. “Or are we going to fight about it?”
Minter, flanked by colleagues in VTrans rail and structures divisions, promised to take to heart the opinions expressed to her on Monday. But she indicated there would be no easy answer to a project that has been in the works since at least 1998 and has arrived at a point at which a project needs to be done.
“There has been a call for a time-out,” Minter said, “and I do want to reiterate that I think one of the reasons we don’t have clear, defined dates right now is because we did take that time-out. We heard that three years is too long. We have been back to the drawing board (to determine) how we can re-conceive this.”
Minter said she is “willing to look at” a bypass solution.
“I love the idea of a public-private partnership,” but added that bypass projects tend to be complex, involving environmental studies, several layers of permitting and the negotiation of rights-of-way from affected property owners.
“It is a public process, and it is generally not a fast one,” Minter said. “It can take decades. However, I think we can look at it.
“No matter what, though, I think we will have to be investing in these bridges,” she added. “We would like to have more certainty right now, too. I think our goal is to shorten the construction season and timing.”
Minter said VTrans will look at all the options.
“There is a lot here that I have learned, and I think we have learned,” Minter said. “We’ll have to reflect on what a bypass could look like; whether it’s a long-term, short-term thing, and how that affects our thinking about this project, itself. There is a lot here.”
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