Lowering bridge level would not save much in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Replacing the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges at their existing clearance level of 18 feet, 8 inches would shave about $4 million off the project price tag and 11 weeks off its construction timetable compared to the current plan that would raise clearance to 21 feet, according to the lead engineer and Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials.
Middlebury officials have been lobbying for changes to the scheduled replacement of the two deteriorating rail bridges. Plans now call for the spans to be replaced with a tunnel that would also create extra surface area in the downtown by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and the town green.
But it’s a project that has been estimated at around $40 million, with a construction timetable that would begin later this year and potentially last through 2019. Downtown Middlebury merchants have already warned that associated detours, parking woes, noise and dust could ruin business over a long stretch of time.
Current plans call for the bridges to be replaced with the higher clearance of 21 feet to allow for double-stack rail cars in the future. Town officials have reasoned that the higher clearance level might be adding significantly to the price tag and the construction schedule, and they asked VTrans and their engineering firm, VHB, to recalculate their numbers based on a bridges’ current clearance.
They are also counting on the Vermont Rail Council to allow for the lower clearance level in Middlebury, arguing that double-stack rail cars are unlikely to be traveling along the Middlebury spur anytime soon. The town, Addison County Chamber of Commerce and many downtown property owners and merchants have appealed to Gov. Peter Shumlin to support the lower bridge clearance for Middlebury.
An endorsement of the lower clearance by the Vermont Rail Council at its Feb. 17 meeting would be key in earning legislative support for a waiver.
Town officials received information from both VHB and VTrans this week showing that keeping Middlebury’s rail bridges at 18 feet, 8 inches would cut around $4 million off the current $40 million price tag, plus the 11 weeks from the construction schedule.
The Middlebury selectboard acknowledged the new project information at their Tuesday evening meeting, but spent only a few minutes discussing it. Board members said this latest development would be taken up by Middlebury’s Local Project Management Team this Thursday (Jan. 28) at 4 p.m. at the municipal building.
Selectwoman Donna Donahue, also a member of the project management team, shared some of her thoughts on Wednesday morning about the new project cost estimates and timetable.
“I’m disappointed with the savings, and hope there are additional savings,” she said.
And there could be. Transportation officials said more savings could be realized by extending work windows with no rail traffic for critical work, allowing work to proceed during the winter, andforegoing a temporary bridge on Main Street during construction.
Donahue said Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay will be asking additional questions of engineers and VTrans officials that she hopes could reveal additional changes for savings and reduced construction time.
Selectman Chairman and project management team member Dean George said he is eagerly anticipating the Vermont Rail Council’s Feb. 17 evaluation of Middlebury’s bridge clearance request. He noted that if the council does not favor the move, that will essentially end discussion about a smaller project and force Middlebury to abide by the current 21-foot clearance level for the bridges.
VHB and VTrans, in their correspondence with Middlebury officials early this week, said the $4 million project savings and 11-week reduction in the construction timetable reflects 20-hour work days, no weekend work, and no work between Friday at 10 p.m. and Monday at 7 a.m.
Reducing the project timeline by 11 weeks would essentially mean work would be complete before 2019, officials said.
Ramsay said she’s been told “a legislator from Middlebury” has asked the state’s Legislative Council “to investigate the possibility of federal intervention to mandate a rail detour during construction.”
Vermont Rail officials have consistently opposed proposals to detour or interrupt traffic along the Middlebury railroad line, pointing to its status as a major commerce conduit along the western Vermont. Current plans call for the rail tracks to be reassembled, throughout the construction project, for the twice-daily train trips through Middlebury.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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