Middlebury rail bridges likely to rise after all

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s effort to maintain the height of its two downtown rail bridges received a setback last week with news that VTrans is unlikely to recommend such a concession because two types of train vehicles can’t squeeze through spans with only 18 feet, 8 inches of clearance.
Middlebury officials confirmed this latest news at a Feb. 3 meeting of the Local Project Management Team (LPMT), a panel charged with representing the town’s interests in a $40 million project that will replace the deteriorating rail spans on Main Street and Merchants Row.
State and federal officials want those bridges to be rebuilt at a height of at least 21 feet in order to eventually accommodate double-stack rail cars. Local officials have been lobbying to keep the bridges at their current 18 feet, 8 inches of clearance, arguing that double-stack cars are not currently in the forecast for the Middlebury rail spur and that the higher clearance standard would add more time and expense to a project currently pegged to last at least three years and possibly longer.
Middlebury merchants and downtown property owners have voiced concerns that a lengthy downtown construction project could devastate their respective bottom lines, in terms of diverting business elsewhere. A preliminary estimate supplied by VTrans and project contractors has indicated maintaining the current 18 feet, 8 inches in bridge clearance could shave around $4 million and 11 weeks from the project as currently designed.
But Middlebury Selectman and LPMT member Dean George said that while VTrans officials have conceded that double-stack cars are unlikely to come through town, there are two other varieties of cars that will — and they will require more than the current 18 feet, 8 inches feet of clearance. Those cars include auto carriers that need to go through the western rail corridor to dealerships in South Burlington; and “domed” passenger rail cars that Amtrak has in its fleet for high-visibility excursions.
“While (VTrans Secretary Chris Cole) would agree there is no suitable argument to support double- stack cars coming through here, these two types of rail cars would in fact be used on the western corridor and this would obviously be a limiting issue if vertical clearance was lowered to 19 feet,” George said.
State transportation planners have identified five pinch points along the western rail line, and have indicated all but the one in Middlebury are “relatively easy fixes,” according to George.
VTrans is going to present this information to the Vermont Rail Council on Feb. 17. Middlebury selectboard members were hoping VTrans might recommend keeping the status quo on clearance for the downtown bridges, and that the rail council would in turn make that recommendation to the Legislature — which has the final say.
It’s now unlikely that the Legislature will be asked to grant a clearance waiver to Middlebury.
“It was my sense … that if VTrans was going to suggest to the rail council that there are two types of cars that are going to be used on this corridor that need (at least) 20 feet, they are certainly not going to support a vertical clearance of 19 feet, or anything less than that,” George said.
“Obviously, there’s disappointment,” George added of the latest news. “I really don’t think there’s a lot of worth in us investing a lot of time and study of this 19-foot clearance if it is not going to be supported. If it’s going to be 20 feet, or 21 feet, or whatever it is, let’s work on how we can do the best job we can with that.”
So with the higher bridge clearance standard seemingly a fait accompli, Middlebury officials are pressing for other project adjustments that could shorten the construction timetable. Those adjustments, officials said, might include year-round work (with no winter breaks), longer work days, and forgoing a temporary span on Main Street.
“I think it’s the only card we have left to play to try to shorten the timeframe which was the primary purpose or goal,” LPMT member Ken Perine said.
Jim Gish is Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project. He said VTrans officials have confirmed that the town has the power, within the project contract, to influence the labor timetable.
“That reinforces the leverage that I think we do have when it comes to the contract time and putting together the work-week schedule that we think will work best for our community,” Gish said.
Selectboard members have had a goal of whittling the construction timeframe from the current three to two years, and engineers have expressed a similar goal.
“If they can do the project in the same amount of time at 21 feet as they can with 19 feet, that would be perfect,” Selectwoman and LPMT member Donna Donahue said.

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