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Rail bridges plan could span 4 years

MIDDLEBURY — The proposed fix for Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges has now been budgeted for $40 million, with construction affecting portions of the village area during parts of as many as four calendar years.
This latest information comes from Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and Kubricky Construction officials, who recently presented Middlebury officials with a revised budget and construction timetable based on project designs now deemed 60-percent complete.
The project — which calls for replacing Middlebury’s Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a concrete tunnel — was until recently expected to cost up to $55 million and span three years. But the latest estimate lowers the budget down to $40 million, in large part because state and federal officials are allowing the tunnel to be built with a clearance of 21 feet instead of the 23.5-foot standard that had originally been mandated for double-stack rail cars.
While the most disruptive segment of the project affecting downtown Middlebury is now expected to encompass around nine months (beginning in April of 2017), the latest schedule offered by Kubricky offers the possibility that a portion of the project might continue into 2019.
News of the revised costs and construction timetable elicited strong reaction from downtown residents, business owners and church leaders who are bracing for a project that organizers acknowledge will bring detours, noise, dust, parking problems and an abundance of artificial light to their area.
Some of those to be affected by the project have sent a letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin, urging him to ask VTrans to withdraw the current plan in favor of a more basic and expedient project that might minimize construction-related upheaval for downtown merchants and residents.
The author of that letter — provided to the governor on Thursday, Dec. 17 — is Bruce Hiland, principal owner of Middlebury’s Battell Block, a historic building complex that faces Merchant Row and hosts numerous businesses, offices and apartments. As of Wednesday morning, approximately 60 people with ties to the downtown had signed Hiland’s letter, which in part states:
“As of today, with 60-percent planning in hand, (VTrans) estimates their project will cost $40 million with four years of serious disruption to the community. Their proposed project will severely damage Middlebury’s historic downtown, cause retail businesses to fail, disrupt our visitor/tourist experience, risk damage to historic buildings and churches — in a phrase, rend the very fabric of our community.
“Gov. Shumlin, this is ultimately your responsibility and will be part of your legacy,” the letter continues. “Would you want to see the Addison County seat, now a vibrant community, turned into a sad has-been community for want of your leadership?”
Hiland said he drafted the letter on Monday after determining the planning process for the bridges no longer had the validity and integrity to earn his — and others’ — support. (To read Hiland’s full letter, click the link at the end of this article.)
PROJECT TIMELINE
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George is a member of a Local Project Management Team that has been meeting with VTrans officials, engineers and contractors to represent the town’s interests in the project. That team met on Monday morning with representatives of VTrans, Kubricky Construction and VHB Engineering to review plans for the project that are now 60 percent complete.
George summarized major milestones anticipated during the latest project timeline:
•  September into November of 2016. Excavation of a 35-foot-deep hole around the foundation of what was the former Lazarus Building at the intersection of Main Street and Printer’s Alley. That hole would be integral to installation of a drainage system for the rail bridges project, culminating in a 5-foot-diameter conduit that will take water away from the railroad track area and deposit it into the Otter Creek.
“There will be a significant amount of equipment at the foundation of the old Lazarus Building, removing the concrete and digging the pit and doing work to establish the drainage,” George said.
Also on the 2016 agenda, according to George: Extending an access road from Water Street to eventually tie into the parking area behind the Battell Block before the Merchants Row rail bridge comes down. A short section of that road is already in place, stemming from construction of the Cross Street Bridge.
These two 2016 projects, George said, would be performed in daily, 10-hour work shifts.
George also noted that Kubricky anticipates suspending work on the project each winter for the duration.
“There will be a period of time during the winter months when there will be nothing going on,” George said. “From their experience … productivity and the amount of effort and expense to keep things going through the winter is not cost-beneficial.”
•  2017 — the most disruptive year for downtown Middlebury. Beginning in the spring, street-level work would take place, including removal of the Main Street rail bridge, with a temporary span put in its place. Once the temporary bridge is erected, the Merchants Row rail span would be demolished, thus closing Merchants Row to through traffic.
Crews would continue micro-tunneling underneath those two bridges during the summer. Late summer, the two new bridge decks are expected to be in place.
“In November or the first part of December, that part of the project would be complete,” George said. “The street surface would be essentially restored.”
Work in 2017 would entail 20-hour work days, five days per week (Monday through Friday), George noted.
•  2018. Beginning in  the spring, work would proceed on micro-tunneling, sheeting and pile driving for portions of the railroad track north and south of the two new bridges. Crews will spend several weeks lowering the tracks (through excavation) to accommodate the new bridge clearance specifications of 21 feet.
This work would continue to be conducted during 20-hour work days, according to George.
“There is a possibility (the project) could get done in that third year, but right now there is being scheduled another winter shutdown and completing the following year (2019).”
COMPENSATING THE TOWN
Some Middlebury officials took heart in the notion that the most disruptive portion of the project would be confined to 2017, the portion that directly affects the two rapidly deteriorating rail bridges. But they added that the tasks planned for 2018 and 2019 would also be disruptive — such as blasting rock to lower the rail bed — and are designed almost exclusively for the benefit of the railroad company. Vermont Railway has been assured uninterrupted freight train travel for the duration of the project. Middlebury Selectwoman Donna Donahue has asked VTrans officials to calculate the cost of restoring the track each workday to ensure passage for trains. She believes Middlebury is entitled to an equal amount for the inconvenience that it and its downtown merchants and property owners would experience during the four-year undertaking.
Donahue estimated the cost of keeping the track open for trains at around $2.5 million.
“This is an accommodation so that the rail company loses no money whatsoever during this project,” Donahue said. “The town can’t lose money either … There is at least a couple of million dollars that ought to be coming to this town to compensate. If we can compensate the railroad, the compensation for the town should be equal to that. Because our economy is definitely going to be affected during this project.”
Joel Perrigo is VTrans project manager for the Middlebury rail bridges project, which he said “is predicted to be the most complicated project we’ve ever done in the state.” Perrigo said he would attempt to identify the project costs associated with maintaining the flow of rail traffic. Perrigo was not able to say whether Middlebury could anticipate any state or federal compensation for construction-related hardships.
And local businesspeople are already anticipating those hardships, ranging from temporary loss of parking to nighttime noise. Officials at the Inn on The Green and the Middlebury Inn have voiced concerns that some of their rooms might be un-rentable during the crux of construction. Sue Hoxie, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, is drafting a list of key events and popular shopping days in downtown Middlebury that contractors might be able to avoid. Representatives of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church — located right along the project area — want to make sure their building is equipped with special monitoring equipment to determine whether construction noise and vibrations cause any damage to the historic structure.
Meanwhile, Town Hall Theater officials remain extremely concerned about the impact that construction might have on performances and other activities at THT on Merchants Row.
Doug Anderson, executive director of the THT, said he’s not sure whether the theater will be able to weather the storm.
“This was originally pitched to us as a two-year project, but now it appears to be a much longer project,” he said. “I’ve been asked for a list of ‘special’ weekends at THT that the construction schedule might avoid, but it’s a meaningless question because we have two to four events here every single weekend, and every one is important to the people involved. This project would disrupt and no doubt cancel productions by the Middlebury Community Players and the Opera Company of Middlebury, the MUHS Junior Prom, weddings, concerts, films, the summer-long THT educational program, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, the Foodaroo food truck event — the list goes on and on and on. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that VTrans might very well drive Town Hall Theater out of business. I can’t imagine that other downtown businesses will fare any better.”
In a related development, the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday voted unanimously to recommend that a temporary parking structure be located on town-owned land behind the Ilsley Library on Main Street. That structure — to be included within the $40 million rail bridges budget — would provide temporary parking spaces during the height of construction.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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