Transportation secretary pans notion of railroad bypass

MIDDLEBURY — Transportation Secretary Sue Minter on Tuesday took the air out of a trial balloon some Middlebury residents had been floating about a potential rail bypass around the downtown, but said the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) was prepared to make some concessions to the community to replace two key rail bridges that she warned have been deteriorating for at least the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, downtown residents and property owners are urging town officials to flex their collective muscle as local project managers to get their state and federal partners to endorse a less disruptive project than the $55 million proposal that would supplant the rail bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row and lower the tracks significantly to handle taller rail cars.
Minter’s position on the rail bridges project was contained in an extensive letter and report received by the selectboard two hours prior to their 7 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. Minter’s comments were a follow-up to a July 27 public meeting that she and other VTrans officials attended in Middlebury. It was at that meeting that several local residents and property owners voiced concerns about what figures to be a lengthy, noisy and disruptive project that could span three years. Some merchants have expressed fears that the resulting traffic detours and commotion could force them to close.
“A fundamental question has surfaced — whose project is this?” said Bruce Hiland, principal of the Battell Block, which houses numerous businesses and offices at the intersection of Merchants Row and Main Street.
“There has never been the sense that the town was in charge.”
Hiland produced copies of two recent agreements between the town and VTrans that he said portray Middlebury as being in charge of the rail bridges plan. Instead, Hiland said, VTrans has been making a lot of the key decisions about the project and what can, or can’t, be done at the site.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George agreed with Hiland’s observation.
“One of our concerns after the (July 27) meeting is that we are reported to be in charge of the project, yet we really have had little influence in what’s happened,” George said. “It’s one of the major issues that we want to clear up.”
Former Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger has been serving as the town’s on-site project manager, though local officials acknowledged he has been receiving mixed signals.
Minter, in her letter, acknowledged the town’s status as project manager, but added “the majority of the project infrastructure will be state-owned. Accordingly, the project management model has been local with day-to-day responsibility placed with the town to ensure the project advances within the parameters of state and federal requirements.”
Federal and state dollars are to finance the vast majority of the proposal; the town has contributed $500,000 to help build the proposed tunnel over the tracks between the two bridges.
“The agreement required that the state concur with the final design,” Minter continued. “Due to the nature and complexity of the project, there has been more state involvement than would typically occur on a locally managed project.”
Minter reiterated her concern that the two Middlebury rail bridges need to be replaced soon. She said VTrans inspections have consistently revealed “concrete cracking delamination, spalling and exposed steel reinforcement. Deteriorating rubble walls between Main Street and Merchants Row represent ongoing maintenance issues for (Vermont Railway) and the state of Vermont.”
Minter also confirmed that VTrans has no interest in pursuing, as an alternative, a rail bypass around downtown Middlebury. Such an endeavor, she said, could cost upwards of $100 million and take more than 10 years, requiring extensive permitting issues, environmental studies and property right-of-way negotiations with affected landowners. Minter said such a proposal would not be eligible for Federal Highway Administration funding and added a project that bypasses a town center “may be inconsistent with the U.S. Department of Transportation ‘livability principle’” that advocates for transportation amenities to be located in downtowns so as to contribute to job and commercial opportunities.
She acknowledged a previous, 3-mile, $34 million rail spur proposal that would have linked the Omya quarry to the main line west of the Otter Creek.
“This would likely be less than half the distance needed for a full bypass,” Minter wrote, noting that construction costs would therefore “likely double” or be even greater.
She noted previous easterly and westerly bypass studies performed by the town of Middlebury that did not germinate into projects.
Minter also addressed specific issues related to the proposed rail improvement project, including:
•  The possibility for some work to be done earlier than the “core” project, now slated to begin during the fall of 2016. These so-called “early release packages” might include the relocation of the Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) bus stop from Merchants Row and the siting of temporary parking, according to Minter.
Such early work, Minter pledged, would have “little or no effect on either vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”
Jim Moulton, executive director of ACTR, said he continues to wait for firm details about the relocation of the bus stop. He said he’d like to have some clarity soon, in the event that one or both of the rail bridges fail.
“We don’t have an alternative site to go to, now,” he said.
•  Potentially scheduling work so that less noisy tasks are performed during the evening and perhaps eliminating noisy back-up alarms on equipment. Minter said VTrans would like to see the downtown-based work completed within one year.
•  Providing temporary parking of up to 50 spaces for village businesses and residents through a “structured parking facility.”
•  Installation of “vibratory sensors” in appropriate locations to monitor potential construction impacts on nearby historic buildings and homes. State officials have determined the project should have “no adverse” effect on historic buildings adjacent to the project site, but Minter acknowledged “there is still potential for unintended effects from the vibrations associated with the construction.” She said each of the buildings will receive a preconstruction survey, including “photographic, video and written documentation.”
The Rev. Susan McGarry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church has banded together with representatives of other historic buildings in town to register their respective concerns with VTrans about how construction vibrations could shake up the older, delicate structures. The group has asked that construction be halted if there are any signs that the work is damaging those buildings, according to McGarry.
“We would like assurances that the town is going to be our partner,” she added.
•  A part-time community liaison, town website updates and coordination with the Better Middlebury Partnership to be used to update people on project progress and to field concerns about any aspects of the work, according to Minter.
Participants at Tuesday’s meeting urged the selectboard to press VTrans for more changes to make the project less complex and more palatable for the town.
Weybridge Street resident Jeffrey Lundstead said he worked for the federal government for almost three decades. He said he learned that when pressed, the federal agencies have been known to soften rules that were thought to be ironclad. For example, he noted the government agreed to a lesser rail bridge clearance of 21 feet, 6 inches for Middlebury when the current minimum standard is 23 feet.
“That means things can be changed,” Lundstead said.
Former Selectman Victor Nuovo also urged the board to speak up for itself in regard to a project that the town will have to live with for many years.
“I think Secretary Minter has somewhat defined the project manager as meaning, ‘you can handle the local business, but leave us alone; we’re going to make the decisions,’” Nuovo said. “I really think it’s your roles as the selectboard to make sure that these decisions are not made until they are fully discussed by you.
“These are orders from above, and I rather find that offensive, to put it mildly,” Nuovo said, while displaying a copy of Minter’s letter.
Resident Heather Seeley asked if the board might be able to compromise with VTrans on a simpler bridge replacement project. For example, she said, the board could consider allowing for a slight raising of the road in the project area in order to require less digging in the rail bed.
George said raising the streetscape was previously considered, but discarded.
“Even a modest raising of the road would create serious problems for our downtown,” he said, alluding in part to access issues at storefronts.
The selectboard is expected to revisit the rail bridges project at its next regular meeting, on Tuesday, Aug. 25.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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