Opinion: Middlebury rail bridges project progressing

I was hired two months ago as Middlebury’s Community Liaison for our downtown bridges project, which will get under way this fall. This position is funded by VTrans, and it has three goals: 1) to provide accurate and timely information on the project to the community, 2) to provide community feedback to VTrans, and 3) to help promote the vitality of Middlebury’s downtown during the project.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to and learning from town residents, business owners, people in town government, and community leaders. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Montpelier, getting to know the people at VTrans and how their world works. In this column I am sharing with you what I’ve learned during the past two months in the form of frequently asked questions. In future columns, I’ll explore specific topics like preservation of our downtown buildings during construction, and I will keep the community fully up to date as planning moves forward.
Q: What’s the latest on the project to replace our downtown bridges?
A: The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has decided that the vertical clearance of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges — vertical clearance is the distance between the top of the rail and the bottom of the bridge — needs to be 21 feet in order to accommodate future uses of the western corridor rail line, including auto carriers and Amtrak dome cars. (The current bridge height is about 18 feet. Last year the town of Middlebury gained a two-foot variance from the state vertical clearance standard of 23 feet.) VTrans also felt that the projected savings in cost and time from lowering the bridge height from the planned 21 feet were not enough to justify more time spent examining vertical clearance options.
This decision clears the way for VTrans and the town to address in detail those aspects of the project that are truly critical to the town, including preservation of our historic buildings, downtown parking, water quality, quality of town life during construction, and the timeline of the project.
Q: Why isn’t the town digging in its heels on the vertical clearance issue? Isn’t that the key to minimizing disruption of the construction project?
A: The town feels that what matters most is the duration of the construction project. While vertical clearance factors into the duration, there are several other ways to reduce the construction timeline.
Also, since the state Legislature would need to approve any further variance in vertical clearance and since all engineering design work to date has been based on a 21-foot clearance, the town feels that further debate on vertical clearance would push construction out another year, a significant risk given the deteriorated state of the Merchants Row and Main Street bridges and the rail line.
The VTrans executive team gained a deeper understanding of the town’s concerns during the lengthy discussion about vertical clearance, with the result that the town now has greater leverage in how the project is organized and executed.
Q: Who is making decisions on this project on behalf of the town?
A: The Middlebury Selectboard appointed a Local Project Management Team to oversee project planning and advise the selectboard on decisions that need to be made. The LPMT has been made up of selectboard members Donna Donahue, Nick Artim, and Dean George as chair. Ken Perine serves as community representative on the LPMT.
Q: What’s the current project schedule?
A: The major construction phase — replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges — will begin in April 2017. The two bridges will be replaced one at a time to allow traffic flow and pedestrian access downtown throughout 2017. Bridge construction and related track work are expected to be completed and normal traffic patterns restored before the 2017 holiday shopping season. To prepare for 2017, in fall 2016 an access road will be built from the end of Water Street to the Battell parking lot to serve Battell residents, those who work in the building, delivery vehicles, and construction crews; a drainage system will be constructed around the site of the current “pop-up park”; and a temporary modular parking garage will be built in town (site to be determined). In 2018, track work is scheduled to continue north of Main Street and south of Merchants Row, starting in spring and finishing before the 2018 holiday shopping season. The goal is to complete all construction work in 2018.
Q: What’s this project going to cost? Who’s paying for it?
A: The project is currently estimated at $40 million. The Federal Highway Administration is paying 95 percent of the cost of the project, with the state of Vermont paying the remainder. At town meeting in 2014, Middlebury taxpayers approved an investment of $500,000 to help pay for covering the rail line section from Merchants Row to Main Street with a tunnel, extending the Village Green from St. Stephen’s west to Triangle Park.
Q: What are we doing to safeguard our downtown business community during construction?
A: The Better Middlebury Partnership, the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, and the town are working together to keep the downtown business community informed about project status and to create special promotions and events to “Keep Middlebury Open for Business” during construction. We are also applying for federal grants to support the marketing initiatives of local businesses.
Q: What are we doing to preserve our historic downtown buildings?
A: We are developing a work plan that includes a pre-construction survey, active monitoring of our historic buildings, and the protocol for stopping work in the event of any damage that may occur.
Q: What will happen to the ACTR bus stop on Merchants Row during construction?
A: After evaluating in detail several alternative sites in town, the LPMT is looking at temporarily relocating the Merchants Row bus stop to South Pleasant Street during construction. A public hearing of South Pleasant Street residents and property owners provided valuable feedback, and the LPMT is now examining how it might relocate the Merchants Row ACTR bus stop to South Pleasant Street with minimal disruption to the neighborhood. Ideally, the relocation would take place in fall 2016.
Q: How disruptive will it be in town during construction?
A: To get the work done as quickly as possible, construction crews will work two 10-hour shifts each day. A five-day workweek will probably begin late Sunday evening and come to an end on Friday at 5 p.m. There will be noise, lights, and dust during construction. How much will depend on specific construction activity. The town will do its best to keep residents and businesses up to date on each week’s planned activity and likely impact. Pedestrians and vehicles will be able to navigate town during construction and signage will be provided for residents and visitors.
Q: Is passenger rail service coming to Middlebury?
A: Yes, the current plan is that Amtrak’s Ethan Allen service will be extended from Rutland to Burlington starting in 2018 and Middlebury will be a station stop. The site of the rail station is under discussion.
Q: How can I get involved to help our town through this challenging period?
A: Neighbors, Together — a community action group initiated by St. Stephen’s and supported by several organizations in town — is developing a wide range of action plans to involve the community in the construction process. For more information, see www.ststephensmidd.org/neighbors-together/.
Q: How can I get regular updates on the construction project?
A: Middlebury resident Jim Gish has been hired as Community Liaison for the Bridge Replacement Project. He will be updating the Middlebury and Addison County communities with regular postings on Front Porch Forum, an online blog available through the town website, www.middleburybridges.org, and in regular contributions to the Addison Independent. He will also be holding various information sessions in the months ahead. You can reach Jim via email at [email protected] or via phone at 388-8100, ext. 400.

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