Community Forum: VTrans to work with town on railroad bridges
Replacing the aging bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row coupled with the reconstruction of the rail bed nestled in the vibrant and historic Middlebury village makes for a challenging public works endeavor. This project will cause temporary impacts to downtown; the selectboard and VTrans have been and continue to examine opportunities to design and construct this project in a manner that will complete the work with the least possible impact to residents and businesses.
Any time a project includes a closure, there is disruption. This is especially true in a Vermont village center. We heard fears expressed around downtown projects in Barre City, Manchester and Danville village, but we worked with those communities to address concerns and by the time all was said and done, those communities were generally pleased with the final result. We work hard to address issues in an open, transparent and ultimately a democratic process that balances local needs with statewide infrastructure needs and the best value to taxpayers.
This project addresses safety issues, which are critical to the economic vitality and future of Middlebury. The structural deficiencies of the two bridges are well known to VTrans and the selectboard. We must replace the bridges proactively with planned closures rather than emergency closures, which would have a greater impact on businesses.
The bridge projects are integrated with the rail safety upgrades and allow us to address the town’s desire to include a tunnel for the rail passage, which will improve safety while providing the town additional green and public space in the village which is a positive development for the future character of the community.
To aid in coordination and communication, a local project team was created including three members of the selectboard and a representative of downtown merchants. They work with the design team and VTrans to incorporate local concerns into design and construction. Responding to local concerns during the 2015 Legislative session, VTrans asked the Legislature approve a reduced clearance from 23 feet to 21 feet, a deviation from state standards, which was approved last session. Why 21 feet? Current state policy directs that all rail investments allow for double-stack rail container clearance, addressing the anticipated future needs for freight movement along this rail line; today’s investments are anticipated to last for 100 years.
The rail safety improvements in this project include drainage upgrades between the two bridges and reconstruction of the retaining wall. Drain pipes need to be installed below the current grade to filter water to the Otter Creek. The new bridges must have thicker decks to carry modern highway loads and will require lowering the grade of the rail bed regardless.
I too have questioned the need for double-stack clearance on this line and have been asking many of the same questions as the editorial (Angelo Lynn, Addison Independent, Dec. 17, 2015), but for me the jury is still out on what is the best investment for the future of Vermont. To help the local project team, the selectboard and VTrans arrive at a decision point, I have asked our engineering team to evaluate construction costs and time to build a 21-foot clearance versus a 19-foot clearance, which is slightly higher than the lowest height of 18 feet, 8 inches, of one of the 10 clearance obstacles elsewhere on the rail line.
Why 19 feet? That is the height needed to accommodate rail car carriers, which could be a viable commodity along this rail corridor. With this information we can begin discussing costs and construction impacts versus the benefits of this infrastructure investment.
The Vermont Rail Council is an advisory board created by executive order, its members appointed by the governor to provide advice to VTrans on rail policy. Your editorial raises the policy question of whether this portion of the western corridor should continue to follow the AREMA standards of a 23-foot height, set at the current legislatively directed height of 21 feet, or at a height of 19 feet, which is slightly larger than the current lowest clearance. This is a policy question worth discussing before the council and I’ve asked that they address this matter at their next meeting on Feb. 17. At that meeting we should have better information on the time and project costs associated with the 21-foot standard versus a 19-foot clearance.
VTrans will continue to work with the town of Middlebury to develop a plan that will successfully balance the needs of the town with the long-term needs of Vermonters and their transportation infrastructure.