Cost of rehab for downtown rail bridges placed at $59 million

MIDDLEBURY — Rehabilitation of the two downtown Middlebury rail bridges would cost an estimated $59 million, a sum that would exceed the projected expense of the current plan to replace those spans with a concrete tunnel. Replacing the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges with more elaborate bridges that rise would cost even more.
Mark Colgan of the engineering firm Vanesse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB) on Tuesday revealed these and other updates to members of Middlebury’s local management team for a rail bridges project that has become more costly and controversial with each passing month.
A proposal to replace the two spans with a tunnel, at a cost of $50 million to $55 million, has been sharply criticized by downtown merchants and property owners for its price tag, scope and estimated duration of up to three years. Some business owners, as well as representatives of the Town Hall Theater, have stated that disruption caused by a three-year project could force them to shut their doors.
Colgan on Tuesday said replacing the rail bridges with a “table bridge” — a deck that can raise vertically with the aid of hydraulic pillars in a manner that would allow adequate passage for train traffic underneath — would cost substantially more than a rehab of the two deteriorating structures or building the tunnel.
Complaints about the cost and disruption of the previously agreed upon tunnel option have prompted the town selectboard to call on the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) to recalibrate the project in a manner that would reduce the scale and duration of the work to be done. VHB officials have been working on that task. So Colgan and his team have been trimming aspects of the tunnel proposal and revisiting previous concepts — such as replacing the two bridges with new spans — to produce a simpler plan that can satisfy the town’s and Vermont Rail Systems’ needs, ideally within one construction season.
It’s an exercise complicated by funding issues and site complications, officials noted.
As it stands, the Federal Highway Administration will pay for the vast majority of the project. As such, the bridges scheme must meet all federal requirements — including that the spans provide at least 21 feet of vertical clearance to double-stack rail cars. The original requirement was 23 feet of clearance, but state officials successfully argued for a waiver to 21 feet. But that will still mean excavating the rail bed to allow for adequate rail car clearance. And the project area, which is near the Otter Creek, will require a lot of drainage work to ensure the rail line does not get overwhelmed by water and that runoff does not seep into the creek or into other environmentally sensitive areas.
Altering the scope of the project in a substantial way might jeopardize federal assistance, and Middlebury does not have the financial wherewithal to pay for a mega-project on its own.
VHB is on target to present the town with new cost estimates for the tunnel project (based on revisions) and other construction alternatives, before the end of October.
“We’re completing a design change analysis to see if there are areas for cost savings and schedule reductions, and that’s in parallel to the alternatives analysis for looking back at some of the options that were reviewed back in 2013,” Colgan told the local project management team. “We revisited some of the original design constraints to see if we could relax some of the criteria of the project.”
Colgan said VHB is also looking at the possibility of simplifying the project drainage system and reducing the length of associated retaining walls by 300 to 400 feet along the rail corridor. Having permission for the lower vertical clearance of 21 feet is expected to help in the cost cutting effort, Colgan said. For example, less excavation required on the rail bed means less micro tunneling for drainage infrastructure, Colgan noted.
VHB will also be revisiting the five project alternatives first pitched in 2013. Those included doing nothing, rehabbing the rail bridges, moving the rail line out of town, replacing with new bridges, and replacing with a tunnel.
A rehab project would mean replacing the existing abutments for the bridges and substituting thicker decks and a longer superstructure. The bridge piers would have to be eliminated, Colgan said, and the walls would have to be flared in to match on each end. The walls and approaches would have to tie into the abutments, he added.
Colgan attributed the need for more retaining walls and the need for more extensive site excavation work as among the main cost-drivers for the $59 million rehab option.
Some citizens at Tuesday’s meeting challenged the extent to which the rail bridges project is being tailored to meet the needs of Vermont Rail, which runs trains on the tracks and would require work to be halted each day to let trains pass. They argued that the project could be much less costly and complex if it were merely focused on the two bridges.
“The sole interest of the community is to have the bridges repaired; it has nothing to do with railroad conditions,” said Bruce Hiland, principal of the Battell Block in downtown Middlebury.
“The fatal flaw on this project seems to me to have been from the outset that there has been no comprehensive, holistic view on the impact on the community of a project that has built into it this scale because of the railroad component,” Hiland added. “This thing has morphed into a three-season behemoth that would destroy the community in the name of saving it, because of the railroad work.”
Middlebury Selectwoman and bridge management team member Donna Donahue agreed. She added the chance of double-stack Amtrak rail cars going through Middlebury is “slim, to almost non-existent,” due in part to the lack of passenger rail stations within the communities that would be served.
“(The project) is being driven by rail and not by the necessity to repair our bridges,” she said.
Colgan again pointed to how federal funding for the project is tied to the rail upgrades, to the extent that deviating from that path could jeopardize assistance.
“It’s not an option for us to remove the rail improvements,” Colgan said.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said the town could file with VTrans a “change in scope order” for the a smaller project. Such a request would have to include justifications for such a move. Project management team members said they are seriously considering such an option, but they want to first receive more information from VHB on the current construction options.
“The choice is either a project that meets the railroad needs because it’s tied to federal dollars, or to meet the town’s needs, which is having bridges that are safe,” Donahue said. “At some point, you have to go back and look at the scope. It’s not fair to throw in the towel and say, ‘This is a rail project and we have nothing to do with it.’ We have a lot to do with it.”
Project team member G. Kenneth Perine said the town should consider talking to its state and federal legislators “to see if there is a legislative fix.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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