Rail bridge project provides a reason to unite and rebel

It’s rare that any Vermont community would have cause to rebel against a state-sanctioned project that purports to benefit the town. In Middlebury, however, that time has come.
With details finally released regarding replacement of the bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row that span Vermont Rail Systems’ tracks through the heart of the downtown, it’s apparent that the proposed three-to-four-year, $40-million project would cause irreparable harm to the town and almost certainly cause several businesses to fail. That’s because the closing of Merchants Row for the 8-month construction season for two consecutive years (2017-18) and the 20-hour days of non-stop construction on Main Street and Merchants row for those two years would make business transactions almost impossible and certainly inhospitable. To pursue a plan that defies such apparent truths is irresponsible — both on the part of the Vermont Agency of Transportation and on the part of the Middlebury selectboard.
Simply put, no governing body should endorse a proposed project that would cause significant and irreparable harm to a community. That is particularly true when much of the proposed project is unwarranted, and other ways to accomplish the end goal are within reach.
The issue is straightforward: Middlebury must replace two deteriorating bridges that span the railway tracks in the heart of its downtown. To do that in the simplest manner — just replacing those bridges as they are without working on the rail bed — has been informally estimated at $5-$6 million, and even the state AOT’s first proposal, back in 2013, pegged the project at $16 million and completed in one or possibly two seasons.
Even that would be disruption enough.
The project mushroomed when the state AOT sought federal assistance to help pay for the project by tying in a plan to upgrade the railway tracks underneath. That proposal required the underpass clearance to be 23 feet, which was later reduced to 21 feet. In doing so, the cost jumped 300-400 percent, and the timeframe doubled to a full three-year cycle of 10-hour days for the first year and 20-hour days for the following two years.
The impending scene of such destruction should not be lost on our public officials: Middlebury’s day-to-day life for three-plus years would see huge pieces of construction equipment crammed into the downtown and engaged in a project that would generate intolerable noise, dust, debris and light pollution, while creating a traffic and parking nightmare. To think that the public will tolerate that for three years without changing shopping habits is fantasy. They will avoid such havoc as much as they can, for as long as it exists. That does not just effect dozens of businesses, but also the town’s main post office, four of the town’s central churches, the 20-plus businesses and numerous residences in the Marble Works Business District, the main office of the National Bank of Middlebury, the town green, the Middlebury Inn, Inn on the Green, and the Town Hall Theater.
As THT Executive Director Doug Anderson said in a story in today’s Addison Independent, the proposed plan would likely drive the theater company into the ground and out of business. Let that reality set in for a few thoughtful minutes: The THT is a community endeavor that raised $6 million in hard-earned donations to renovate an historic building; restore it to a thriving community asset that involves hundreds of community residents each year in more than 150 events. To adopt a plan that drives that community asset out of business is the height of irresponsibility.
The same is true of the dozens of other businesses, restaurants, inns, professional services, and others that will be severely stressed by the proposed project.
While the Middlebury selectboard has tried its best to subtly influence the proposal, they have been conned into believing two things: that the town had to comply with federal height requirements for the bridges that provided a 21-foot clearance, and that because VTRANS and Vermont Rail Systems would not budge on lowering that requirement, there were no other options.
At least on the first issue, the town now knows otherwise.
According to Sen. Bernie Sanders office, the overpass vertical clearance regulations mandating the 21-foot clearance to allow for double-stack freight are state issues, and that those federal regulations are on a “route specific” basis that can be mitigated by appealing to the state. If the state board and Vermont Rail Systems agree, the exception can be granted. Why would those two entities agree? Because there are 21 other obstacles along the stretch of railway involved that would prevent double-stack cargo, according to independent research done by opponents of the proposal. There are no plans — current or future — to address those obstacles in the 20-year Vermont State Rail Plan (adopted June 19, 2015). Moreover, there is no current or foreseeable market-based need for moving freight in that manner along this rail line. In short, common sense could prevail, particularly in light of the potential damage to Middlebury.
The preposterous outcome of pushing ahead with the current $40 million proposal is that the AOT would severely harm the long-term fabric of the community and potentially put several stores and institutions out of business all to comply with a 21-foot clearance that will never be needed. That’s not just reckless and illogical,  it’s a waste of federal and state tax dollars.
The best option is obvious:
• Repair or replace the bridges in the most cost-effective way, while devoting enough resources to make the rail bed safe through town, but not upgrading the tracks and bridge height to allow for max speeds through Middlebury’s downtown and double-stack capacity. What Middlebury gives up in that option is the prospect of a tunnel over the green connecting the two overpasses, thus reclaiming valuable green space in the downtown.
• A secondary option would allow the proposal to go forward as is, but with millions of dollars in compensation to affected businesses. Selectwoman Donna Donahue proposed such a plan at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.
At the very least, the Middlebury selectboard should demand viable options that will replace the bridges, but won’t put dozens of businesses and institutions out of business and put many others in jeopardy; and they should refuse to buckle to the 21-foot height requirement when every partner agrees its need is highly unlikely.
That’s defending Middlebury’s sovereignty from a state bureaucracy that has allowed its judgment to be flawed in the name of progress. It is reason to unite and rebel, if we are to protect our own.
Angelo S. Lynn

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