VTrans: Middlebury rail bridges clearance must rise

MIDDLEBURY — State transportation officials have served notice that Middlebury should not count on any further reduction in the minimum vertical clearance requirement for its two deteriorating downtown rail underpasses that need to be replaced. This means that the bridges will have to be re-done with a minimum 21 feet of clearance for trains, and not at the current 17 feet, 9 inches of clearance that local officials believe could have led to a more basic project and shorter construction timetable.
“If the town of Middlebury were to request an additional change in the vertical clearance for the Middlebury tunnel project, the Transportation Board or the Legislature would need to authorize that change and there would need to be concurrence from both the Vermont Agency of Transportation and Vermont Railway,” reads an Oct. 30 email from VTrans Director of Policy Planning & Intermodal Development Michele Boomhower to Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George.
“The Agency will not agree to an additional reduction in height and it is expected that Vermont Railway will not agree to a further reduction in the vertical clearance.”
Boomhower’s message essentially ends Middlebury’s hopes for a smaller, less disruptive project than the current frontrunner. The leading project currently calls for the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges over the railroad tracks to be replaced with a concrete tunnel, an undertaking estimated at $55 million and projected to span as many as three years. Middlebury officials, local merchants and downtown property owners have sharply criticized the tunnel proposal, contending it would be too disruptive to local commerce and travel, and could result in numerous stores going out of business.
Early last week, George said he was disappointed with the VTrans decision. Town officials had reasoned that VTrans and the Federal Highway Administration might acquiesce to maintaining the 17-feet, 9-inch clearance in Middlebury because it does not appear that taller, double-stack Amtrak cars will be traveling through Middlebury anytime soon, George said.
“We wanted to ask, ‘What if we kept (the vertical clearance) at the existing height, based on our understanding that that height is sufficient for the foreseeable future in train traffic for passenger rail and freight,’” George said.
The feds did award $10 million late last month toward the upgrade of the rail system from Rutland to Burlington, including an additional $16 million in state and other federal resources. The project aims to improve service on the state-owned rail line by replacing track with new rail, ballast and ties; rehabilitating the Rutland Wye railroad junction; and adding new gates for public crossings, a new passing siding in Pittsford and a crossover in Leicester to allow for operational flexibility. The project will also include installation of new passenger platforms.
In a release announcing the funding, all three members of the Vermont Congressional delegation and Gov. Peter Shumlin said this work “will remove the final hurdle for restoring passenger service between Rutland and Burlington.”
But George and other Middlebury officials don’t believe that’s necessarily a harbinger of double-stack cars.
The selectboard and members of the local project management team will now focus on getting all of their issues taken care of as a more ambitious rail bridges project takes shape. Town officials are still hoping that planners can, during the next few months, devise a project less involved than the one currently on the drawing board.
“We want to remain a big player in this (project),” George said.
Middlebury’s local project management team were slated to meet last Friday to compile a list of the town’s most important priorities. They include preserving historic buildings on the periphery of the project — including St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church — ensuring adequate parking while work is being performed, and minimizing noise, dust and detours.
Local officials acknowledged that securing another reduction in vertical clearance for trains was going to be a long shot. The state Legislature earlier this year authorized VTrans to deviate from the federal standard of 23 feet in vertical clearance height to a minimum 21 feet for the Middlebury project.
Boomhower added VTrans can’t even authorize funding to study the design, cost estimate and timeline for a project that maintains the vertical clearance at the current height of 17 feet, 9 inches, as it is not in conformance with the higher, federal clearance standards for the project. She noted the town could bankroll such a study with its own resources, but Middlebury would be unlikely to do so given the lack of federal and state support for keeping the same vertical clearance for the two bridges. The downtown bridges project is heavily dependent on federal and state funding.
Middlebury is looking forward to a significant update on the rail bridges project by the middle of this month. That’s when the engineering firm of Vanesse Hangen Brustlin Inc. is expected to release 60-percent-complete design plans for the project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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