Top stories of 2015: #5 — Middlebury cries foul over rail bridge project
Middlebury’s decade-long quest to replace its two downtown rail bridges took a dramatic and expensive turn for the worse in 2015, according to property owners, merchants and residents who figure to be affected by the project.
Local officials had hoped the deteriorating bridges, which carry vehicle and pedestrian traffic on Merchants Row and Main Street above the railroad below, could be replaced for under $10 million during a single construction season, in order to minimize the disruption of detours, noise, dust and the temporary loss of parking spots.
But a plan to replace the two spans with a concrete tunnel quickly mushroomed in cost to around $55 million and a construction timeframe of three years.
Middlebury formed a local project team to represent the town’s interests in lobbying for a simpler project with a shorter time schedule. Local officials and property owners argued that three years of downtown construction disruption might force some businesses to close. But Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials noted that since the project was to be funded primarily with federal dollars, it would have to conform to federal transportation standards — including minimum clearance standards for trains. Federal standards call for a rail bridge clearance of 23.5 feet to allow for double-stack train cars, well above the 18 feet, 9 inches that currently exist at the two Middlebury spans.
State and federal officials were able to secure a lower clearance threshold of 21 feet for the Middlebury spans. But local officials learned in December — based on project plans that were 60 percent complete — that work could still run into parts of four calendar years and cost around $40 million.
The latest plans reflect around nine months of intensive work in the downtown (in 2017), with 20-hour workdays. Extensive work related to drainage and lowering the rail bed, coupled with the scheduled shutdown of work during the winter months, was expected to lead to the four-year construction timeframe.
Another major bone of contention between the town and VTrans: Vermont Rail would need to be assured of uninterrupted freight train traffic through downtown Middlebury during the project, meaning tracks would have to be temporarily restored during each workday. Local officials argued this practice would add time and expense to the project. Selectwoman Donna Donahue estimated the cost of keeping the track open for trains at around $2.5 million, and she suggested the town should be entitled to a similar sum to support those that would be economically hurt by the work.
Town Hall Theater Executive Director Doug Anderson said the noise and traffic disruption generated by a four-year project could force the THT to close.
Bruce Hiland, principal owner of the Battell Block on Merchants Row, 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. More than 60 people with ties to the downtown signed on to Hiland’s letter.
“Gov. Shumlin, this is ultimately your responsibility and will be part of your legacy,” the letter stated. “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?”