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State to consider scaling back Midd RR bridges plan

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Transportation Secretary Chris Cole has asked the Vermont Rail Council to weigh in on the notion of lowering the minimum clearance requirement for Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges from 21 feet to 19 feet.
It’s a move that — if approved by the Legislature — could substantially reduce the duration, cost and inconvenience of what is currently a $40 million plan to replace the spans during what could be a four-year work schedule.
The Vermont Rail Council is an advisory board appointed by the governor to advise the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) on rail policy. The council will consider the question of lowering the clearance standard for the Middlebury rail bridges at its Feb. 17 meeting, Cole revealed through an op-ed piece in response to a recent Addison Independent editorial on the rail bridges project (See page 5).
“At that (Feb. 17) meeting, we should have better information on the time and project costs associated with the 21-foot standard versus a 19-foot clearance,” Cole stated.
Middlebury officials have long been clamoring for a reduction in the scope and duration of the plan, which aims to replace the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges in a manner that would accommodate double-stack rail cars, a condition that means conforming to federal clearance requirements for rail bridges. The federal guideline is actually 23 feet, but state officials agreed to grant a waiver of 21 feet for the Middlebury spans. But the 21-feet clearance threshold would still require a complicated project calling for, among other things, substantial rail bed excavation and the installation of drain pipes below the current grade to filter water into the adjacent Otter Creek.
Dean George, chairman of the Middlebury selectboard, said he and his colleagues hope the new cost analysis requested by Cole reveals that a 19-foot clearance threshold for the two bridges would satisfy the railroad’s long-term needs, while resulting in a much shorter and less expensive project. The cost analysis is expected to reveal whether the shorter clearance threshold might call for less drainage work and less extensive excavation of the rail bed.
The project is slated to begin later this year and potentially lapse into 2019, according to 60-percent design plans recently released by VTrans. Planners are trying to limit construction in the core downtown to April through December of 2017, but some Middlebury businesses — including the Town Hall Theater — have already expressed concerns about being able to weather the associated noise, dust, temporary parking woes and artificial light that they believe could send customers elsewhere.
Middlebury’s concerns are not without precedent, Cole noted.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Town selectboard members have lobbied for a more modest project to replace the deteriorating bridges at their current height of 18 feet, 8 inches. They have voiced skepticism that the Middlebury rail line will ever see the double-stack cars that would necessitate the higher clearance threshold of 21 feet. Gov. Peter Shumlin, during a recent interview with the Independent, expressed similar skepticism and promised to talk to key project players to discuss relaxing the clearance requirement.
Cole said he’s willing to study the issue.
“I, too, have questioned the need for double-stack clearance on this line and have been asking many of the same questions as the (Independent) editorial, but for me the jury is still out on what is the best investment for the future of Vermont,” Cole said. “To assist the local project team, the selectboard and VTrans to 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 — one of the 10 clearance obstacles elsewhere on the rail line. Why 19 feet? That is the height needed to accommodate rail car carriers that 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.”
A rail council endorsement of lowering the Middlebury rail bridges clearance standard from 21 feet to 19 feet would undoubtedly enhance the chances of the Legislature authorizing such a move, noted VTrans Public Outreach Coordinator Erik Fikorn. A Feb. 17 recommendation by the council would still give lawmakers ample time to decide Middlebury’s rail clearance waiver before the end of this year’s legislative session.
Meanwhile, George said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Cole’s latest pronouncements on the Middlebury rail bridges project and the need to study the 19-foot clearance option.
“It’s an acknowledgment that this issue needs to be addressed,” George said. “It makes a huge difference to have that information.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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