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Editorial: Split railway project into two separate proposals

As Middlebury residents, businesses and town officials jump into the fray that has rather suddenly surrounded the proposed railway improvements through Middlebury’s downtown — replacing the underpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row — let’s be sure the message we’re sending does not smack of a community opposed to development and resistant to change.
On the contrary, Middlebury’s message should be that our utmost concern is to protect and maintain a thriving business community and that the current Agency of Transportation (AOT) proposal threatens the town’s economic viability, both in the short-term and long-term.
The town’s priority, we should emphasize, is to fix our deteriorating railway underpasses and reclaim land within the town’s Green via a tunnel, if feasible. Beyond that, however, railway improvements should be at the expense of the company benefitting from the improvements and the state/federal government, but not to the detriment of the town.
To be fair, that the AOT’s $45 million to $55 million project was seen as an economic threat to downtown businesses was news to Vermont Transportation Secretary Sue Minter as she held court at a specially called Middlebury hearing on the project a week ago Monday. At that hearing, she learned that what has morphed from a one-year, $10 million to $12 million project has turned into a three-year project that could mean 20-hour-a-day disruption in the downtown for a full year, with two more years of work to the north and south of the village green.
The scale and scope of the project, as reported in the Addison Independent’sJuly 16 edition, had town liaison Bill Finger concluding that the construction would “not be a pretty project: To date we have tried to make this project sound simple and non-intrusive, however: It is not simple, it is complex. 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 (via night lights) in places. It will require patience, cooperation and creativity from all town residents and visitors.”
Or it could spark opposition.
It’s the specifics of the project that caught the Middlebury business community, and many residents, by surprise. While the conceptual plans were completed in September 2013 and a preliminary design was completed in December of 2013, both passing public approval, it wasn’t until this July that affected businesses and town officials learned that the scope had ballooned so dramatically. Such enormous change creates potential hardships that several downtown businesses say they could not survive — hence the reason for the sudden and passionate calls for “a time-out” to rethink the entire project.
But before the town’s reaction gets misunderstood, let’s define what the preferable outcome for Middlebury should be.
•  First and foremost, we must devise an acceptable plan to replace the deteriorating railway underpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row in the heart of Middlebury’s downtown. That’s a critical safety and transportation issue that must be addressed sooner than later. Original plans called for closing just one road at a time, thus leaving acceptable access to downtown businesses throughout the duration of the project.
•  In accomplishing the above task, if we can cap a 350-foot tunnel and reclaim land within the town Green that’s a rare opportunity that is well worth the $500,000 approved by town residents two years ago. It’s not a necessity, but if it can be done without undue disruption to the downtown, let’s do it.
But that’s where the town’s priorities end, as initially envisioned by proposals that were last pegged at about $18 million, completed in a single construction season.
The town’s opposition to this project should be clear: The three-year, $45 million to $55 million proposal came about because Vermont Railway and the state saw the needed improvements through Middlebury as an opportunity for bigger things. Hence, the current plan includes dropping the depth of the tracks to create a clearance of 21 feet, 6 inches (a gain of about 3 feet) by blasting out the bedrock below the tracks, constructing proper drainage, and widening the current stone walls to gain better horizontal clearance for larger rail cars. It is primarily that work that will be causing the extra construction time downtown, the excessive noise and dust, potential damage to downtown historic buildings, and the closing of both downtown roads for up to a year, including the loss of up to 50 downtown parking spaces — all of which creates a serious threat to many downtown businesses.
It’s that likely consequence that the town should bring to the state’s attention and seek a better solution.
**************
To that end, the call for a time-out to rethink the proposal makes good sense. That is to say, “Hey, let’s go back to the beginning, recall what the essential goals are (replacing the two underpasses), and, if we want to do more than that, create a separate plan to improve the railway through or around town.”
Such a plan could reasonably include an eastern bypass around the downtown. While that notion was briefly brought up at the July 27 hearing, details were scant, though preliminary work has sketched an easterly bypass to the east of Chipman Hill and most likely linking with the previously proposed Omya rail spur on Route 7 that would carry material from the Omya quarry near the Foster Brothers Farm. That’s partly conjecture, but it makes sense.
No doubt such a project would be years in the making and resisted by property owners who would be asked to cede land rights-of-way, but the idea has several valid points: It would be unquestionably safer in the long run because the track would be new, straighter and avoid Middlebury’s downtown business district and two schools; the train could maintain higher speeds, while potentially picking up additional business from Omya; while the bypass would mean any eventual passenger service would be moved to a station outside the downtown, adequate parking would then be available and not the problem it would be if downtown.
Minter was thoughtful in her response to consider the bypass option, and to learn more about the town’s business concerns, but she’ll be hard-pressed to come up with concrete answers in the short-term that would be better than that proposed by several business leaders: Fix the bridges and build the tunnel first, then consider how best to improve the tracks for bigger and faster trains via a separate project.
Angelo S. Lynn

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