Community Forum: Rail project’s impacts will be felt

This week’s writer is Donna Donahue, writing on behalf of the Middlebury Local Project Management Team, which also includes Dean George, Ken Perine and Nick Artim.
As most citizens know, the town of Middlebury is involved in a project which will replace two failing bridges, one on Merchants Row (TH8 Bridge 2) and the other on Main Street (VT30/TH2 Bridge 102), both over Vermont Railway. The repair/replacement of these bridges is at a critical juncture. Back in 2012 the State began a discussion on how to do this. The project is Federal/State Project Number WCRS (23). The work type is specified Railroad Bridge Rehabilitation. This qualifies the work as being eligible for federal dollars. The current agreement specifies an 80 percent federal, 20 percent state allocation of dollars with Middlebury having an obligation of $500,000.
The initial reaction to the project was one of great enthusiasm. We have long been aware of the safety concerns regarding the deterioration of the bridges, drainage issues and poor track alignment. In 2007 there was a derailment of 15 freight cars which could have been catastrophic. The fact that these safety concerns were going to be addressed was the cause of our enthusiasm. An initial estimate for the project was a year and around $12 million.
The great shock came in December 2014 when a plan presentation showed three years of 20-hour work days and costs reaching up to $55 million.  A public meeting was held in July 2015 with State officials, local business leaders, and interested citizens. At that meeting a request was made to re-evaluate the project reducing the vertical height requirement of 23 feet for bridge/tunnel.
Following the July presentation a new local management team was formed consisting of Ken Perine, local business leader and three members of the Middlebury selectboard: Dean George, Nick Artim and myself. In August our group requested that VHB, the engineering company for the project and VTrans step back and review the original assumptions and assessments that were made. Specifically we asked that they look at rehabilitation of the bridges at their current height.
The response was a re-evaluation of rehabilitation but at an increased height. Their reason for refusing to look at the current height was that it was not within their scope given the Vermont rail standards that had been adopted. This despite being reassured that the municipality of Middlebury was the local project manager.
In November, 2015 a new 60-percent construction plan was presented with the 23-foot height reduced to 21 feet, still high enough to accommodate double-stack rail cars whose presence on the western corridor was said to be highly unlikely at the July meeting. The phrase, “we plan for 100 years” was used to justify the 21-foot height, and the fact that the Vermont Legislature had approved AREMA rail construction standards.
The ARA (American Rail Association) says height determination is route-specific. Again we requested the project be re-evaluated and were told that a new evaluation was being done to accommodate the reduced height and to reduce cost and duration of the project.
 On Dec. 14 we were shown a new 60-percent plan whose cost was estimated at almost $35 million with no contingency funding. If 20 percent were added to cover contingencies the project comes in around $40 million, and the duration, including early-release projects, would span three full construction seasons into a fourth, working two 10-hour shifts per day, except during the early-release portion, with nighttime lighting for the duration of the project and noise in varying degrees depending on specifics of project.
We have three specific requests at this point:
First, go back to the Legislature and seek a waiver on the height requirement. We have addressed this issue with Deputy Secretary of Transportation Richard Tetreault, whom we hope will help us do this. Active community support and the support of our local legislative team will also be needed for this.
Two, we ask that we be granted economic compensation equal to that which Vermont Rail is receiving so they do not lose any business during construction, a very substantial amount.
Three, when construction begins, work with the town on a flexible work schedule that will allow specific events to be held without construction noise impeding them, and that will accommodate the needs of the town in general.
The claim has been made that this project is part of a strategic plan. If that is true, it is a very questionable plan that does not from its inception take into account a broad cost-benefit analysis to the state and victimizes Middlebury. Rail is incredibly important to our future and there is a limit to the dollars allocated to rail spending. Double-stack freight along the western corridor is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, literally decades away. On the other hand passenger rail along the western corridor is a tangible reality but has an estimated $110 million shortfall. If the cost and duration of this Middlebury project can be reduced by keeping the existing height, it should be done for the town’s sake and for the savings of both federal and state tax dollars. The money saved could be put to meaningful use for improved track for passenger rail. That is a strategic plan.
If there are other pertinent commanding facts that justify the cost and disruption associated with increased vertical clearance, we have not been made aware of them. It appears for all intents and purposes to be a plan that benefits Vermont Rail to the detriment of the town of Middlebury.
Please raise your voices on this important project. Your opinion matters.

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