Opinion: Rail bridge plan is unacceptable

Dear Gov. Shumlin,
The membership of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Better Middlebury Partnership represents more than 200 businesses, organizations and individuals within the boundaries of Middlebury as well as another 200 members throughout Addison County. We are writing on our members’ behalf to express our concern over the Agency of Transportation’s current plan to repair the two railroad bridges spanning Main Street and Merchants Row.
There is little disagreement in the community that the two bridges need immediate replacement and that safety/drainage improvements be made to the rail bed — we want to avoid the type of disruption that was created by the abrupt closure of the Lake Champlain Bridge in 2009. During that three-year construction project, the daily habits of residents, tourists and shoppers changed drastically.
The Addison County Chamber was actively involved with the Lake Champlain Bridge Community and some of the lessons learned are as follows:
•  Businesses failed as a result — some failed immediately, while others failed 12-18 months into the project as part of a trickle-down effect.
•  The longer the project’s duration, the effects are more far reaching. Lost traffic and revenue never comes back — business owners devastate their personal savings or take out loans to keep their businesses afloat — that’s money that they’ll never get back.
•  The value of those businesses and real estate declines and won’t recover for years.
•  Traffic patterns of both residents and tourists change and it takes some time to get that traffic back.
The proposed project for downtown Middlebury is 18 months longer, and while roads won’t be completely closed, we can be sure that people’s habits will change. Fifty parking spaces will be lost, regularly used roads and sidewalks will be closed and/or detoured, the noise will be intense, dirt and dust will be everywhere, and downtown will be brightly lit nearly around the clock.
The project timeline calls for 20-hour workdays, leaving only four hours of potential uninterrupted sleep time for residents living or tourists staying in the downtown area. However, the four-hour window coincides with the time that rail traffic will be traveling through downtown and the construction zone.
Middlebury is the economic hub of this region, and businesses in Addison County depend on the traffic that Middlebury draws. Several event venues, including Middlebury’s historic inns and Town Hall Theater, are unable to book future events, weddings and shows, which will have a direct impact on many other businesses in the area.
Regardless of how creative we are in developing events, promotions, and reasons for people to keep coming into Middlebury, with certainty some businesses will not survive a four-year construction project. Is all of this truly necessary?
The complexity, duration and expense of the project are based on a 21-foot height clearance in order to accommodate double-stacked freight cars. We urge the Vermont Rail Council to strongly consider the negative impact on the entire Middlebury region as they review the minimum clearance requirement in the coming weeks.
As the two business associations representing the majority of downtown businesses, we ask the state of Vermont to shelve the project as currently designed and move to immediately repair the two bridges while making necessary improvements to the rail bed at a 19-foot clearance with the least possible impact on Middlebury and surrounding businesses. We strongly believe that the future of Middlebury depends on it.
Sue Hoxie, President, Addison County Chamber of Commerce
Lindsey Wing, President, Better Middlebury Partnership

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