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Middlebury puts brakes on downtown rail bridges project

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury has successfully applied the brakes on a $55 million, three-year fix for its two downtown rail bridges and is now sitting in the driver’s seat in planning a project the community hopes will be less of an impact on local merchants, residents and shoppers.
To that end, the town selectboard on Tuesday formed a four-person committee to ensure its influence over the replacement of two downtown rail bridges, a project that suddenly has no specific timeline in the wake of widespread criticism over the leading “tunnel” proposal.
The selectboard on Tuesday named a four-person local management team, a panel that will work with Project Manager Bill Finger and engineers to design a project that will — to the greatest extent possible — reflect Middlebury’s priorities for replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
Current plans call for the spans to be replaced by a 350-foot-long concrete tunnel, a project that organizers acknowledge would create some major noise, dust, loss of parking and disruption to the village shopping scene for the year during which construction would occur in the heart of the downtown.
Middlebury officials have backed off of their support for the tunnel project as its scope, cost and impacts have grown. Board members have also voiced frustrations over what they contend has been a lack of local control over a proposal that would largely benefit Vermont Rail Systems, which has insisted on maintaining two daily train runs on the track during construction.
Selectboard members Dean George, Donna Donahue and Nick Artim, along with former National Bank of Middlebury President G. Kenneth Perine, will round out the local management team.
“We need to deal with (project) impacts in a way that’s manageable for the town,” George said of the team’s main goal.
George and some other town officials recently had a conference call with Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) Secretary Sue Minter. George was upbeat on Tuesday that VTrans will abide by an existing agreement that reconstruction of the bridges will be a locally managed project, though the selectboard recognizes that state and federal officials will also have to agree with the work to be done. That’s because federal funds will pay for the vast majority (roughly 80 percent with the state picking up the other 20 percent) of the project.
A previous schedule called for work to begin on the tunnel proposal as soon as next spring. VTrans officials have agreed to pull away from such a timetable in order to allow the town and VHB Engineering to potentially pare down the tunnel project and look at potential alternatives. VHB is slated to deliver the town that new information before the end of September.
“Nothing is off the table,” Donahue said. “We will look at all of the assumptions from the first time around.”
Planners will also look at some new possibilities — including a “table bridge” concept. A table bridge features a deck that can raise vertically with the aid of hydraulic pillars. Such bridges are being used to allow barge traffic to pass beneath them. A specific example of a table bridge can be found in Tournai, Belgium.
Traffic on the affected road would stop to wait out the raising and lowering of the span.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Middlebury rail bridges project has been the requirement that both spans allow for at least 21 feet, six inches of clearance for the eventual passage of double-stack rail cars. But state and federal authorities remain unsure when double-stack cars will actually be put into service in Vermont.
Having a table bridge could provide the town with some insurance for adequate rail car clearance without having to proceed with a tunnel solution, George theorized.
“It could be generations before the extra height is needed,” he said.
Donahue also sees some promise in the table bridge idea, though she noted the decision might come down to dollars.
“It could be so expensive that it’s out of the question,” she said.
Meanwhile, local officials have received some new information indicating the tunnel project might not be as noisy as once thought. Organizers had said that the work would include the driving of more than 300 pilings to support the walls and the tunnel. Artim said he’s been told that at least some of those pilings could be screwed in, thereby removing some of the hammering noise that has been contemplated.
Michele Boomhower, director of policy, planning and intermodal development for VTrans, attended the rail discussion at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting and reinforced the state’s desire for the town to take a leading role on the project.
“VTrans is definitely very encouraged by the proactive approach you are taking at this point,” she told the board. “Having this local project management team is a really effective means for your body to be right at the table and involved in understanding the complexity of the decisions that are going to need to be made.”
Artim, attending Tuesday’s meeting via speakerphone from Oregon, was pleased with the latest developments in the rail bridge project.
 “It’s good to know that we will be part of the discussion and the solution, and not (staying) on the sidelines,” Artim said.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard:
•  Discussed school funding, Lake Champlain cleanup efforts and the potential for an Exchange Street/Route 7 rotary with Middlebury’s legislative delegation. The group included Reps. Betty Nuovo and Amy Sheldon, both Middlebury Democrats; Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven; and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison.
Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, passed out a list of water quality goals that Vermont towns must meet in the coming years, and noted Middlebury and its wastewater treatment plant are well poised to meet the requirements.
•  Pored over a series of proposed revisions to Middlebury’s bicycles and skateboards ordinance. The board will further discuss the changes and accept public feedback at its next meting on Sept. 8.
•  Received word from Jamie Gaucher, Middlebury’s director of business development and innovation, that a local development team on Sept. 10 will present its proposal for a multi-use project on town-owned land behind the Ilsley Library. That public presentation by NexBridge will begin at 5 p.m. in the Middlebury Regional EMS headquarters at 55 Collins Drive.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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