Rail bridges’ impact leads to talk of lawsuit
MIDDLEBURY — A group of downtown Middlebury property owners has given municipal and state transportation officials until the end of this month to produce more environmental and safety-related information about the upcoming replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row railroad bridges, or they will take legal action.
That request is contained in an April 11 letter from local attorney Peter Langrock to the Middlebury selectboard.
“I represent clients who are deeply concerned with the bridge replacement project,” Langrock writes in his letter. “They are concerned about the safety of the project in construction and perpetuity. They are concerned about environmental matters in construction and perpetuity.”
Downtown Middlebury merchants and property owners have long been concerned about the project, which has grown dramatically in scope, price and expected duration since it was first pitched in its current form around three years ago. It includes replacing the two rail underpasses with a concrete tunnel at a cost of around $40 million. Work is expected to kick off this fall and conclude by the end of 2018, with periods of 20-hour work days.
Affected property owners have expressed concerns about how their respective buildings — many of them historic in nature — could be affected by project noise, dust, blasting and traffic detours. Moreover, they have criticized the notion of maintaining freight train traffic through a Middlebury downtown that has already seen one train derailment in recent memory.
Langrock’s clients are offering to shoulder the cost of a “third party railroad expert” to review what Langrock referred to as “key documents,” including emergency response plans for any train derailment that might involve spills of gasoline, diesel, chlorine, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and ammonia. The letter includes a total of 18 questions/information requests that the downtown property owners want addressed, including:
• What are the dates and durations of street closures?
• What insurance does each of the contractors carry?
• Plans showing any project drainage discharge point and associated discharge permit from the state.
• Project design document for professional review by a qualified third party in cooperation and collaboration with the town.
• A contaminated materials disposal plan.
• Evidence of funding commitments and conditions in an amount exceeding the contractually guaranteed total included in the cost of the project.
The property owners also expressed some misgivings about Vermont Rail’s plans to remove and replace tracks at the project location in order to maintain daily freight traffic along the western corridor of the state.
“The replacement of tracks on a daily basis is a real risk without a demonstrated mitigation,” the letter reads. It requests that town and VTrans officials refer to existing emergency response, isolation and protection standards prescribed by the state and federal governments.
“My clients are urgently concerned and have instructed us to proceed to legal action in the event that the requisite documents and anticipated cooperation from VTrans have not been provided by April 29, 2016,” Langrock concludes. “In that case, my clients welcome the town’s joining of a legal action to compel VTrans to provide the information requested.”
Langrock added his clients are also prepared to take legal action independent of the town.
Contacted on Wednesday morning, Langrock declined to share the names or number of clients he is representing. He said the nature of the legal action would depend on the amount of information that VTrans does, or doesn’t, present by the deadline.
“Our intention is to work with the town and make sure that if the project goes forward, it complies with all environmental and safety regulations, and we need that information to determine if that’s going to happen,” Langrock said.
Bruce Hiland, principal owner of Middlebury’s historic Battell Block that fronts both Main Street and Merchants Row, is among Langrock’s clients.
“The letter clearly spells out the next step in our continuing effort to provide constructive help to the selectboard,” Hiland said. “We believe we share with them a common objective: specifically, to assure maximum protection to our community during a long and risk-laden construction project in the historic center of our town. To support their efforts our letter identifies a number of items that urgently need clarification and we offer assistance in gathering and analyzing that information.”
Jim Gish is Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project. He expressed concerns that the letter might be perceived as an unnecessary, heavy handed approach.
“As the town’s community liaison for the downtown bridge replacement project, I’m attending VTrans planning meetings and reviewing planning documents,” he said. “I haven’t seen any indication that we need to compel VTrans to provide information to the town under the threat of legal action. VTrans and (engineers) VHB are willingly sharing planning documents with me, with our local project management team, with the selectboard, and with other interested parties.”
He believes that two weeks might not be enough time for VTrans to provide answers to all the property owners’ questions.
“Demanding that VTrans provide an answer to all the complex questions posed in Peter’s letter in less than three weeks or face legal action when major construction downtown is still 12 months off runs counter to the careful and deliberate steps now taking place to deliver a sound and well-considered plan and to keep Middlebury safe during construction and in the years ahead,” Gish said.
Langrock, through his letter, indicated his clients’ request should not be perceived as a threat, but rather as an “effort to assure the town of Middlebury and my clients that the steps being taken during the planning and design review are sound and well-considered.”
Gish contends the information being sought through the Langrock letter is, and will be, supplied through the ongoing refinement of the project plans.
As the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday afternoon, the Middlebury selectboard was scheduled to discuss the Langrock letter at a meeting that evening.
“The in-depth planning and discussion now taking place between the town, VTrans, and the design engineering firm VHB are focused on addressing many of the same concerns expressed in Peter’s letter regarding public safety, environmental protection, and the vitality of our downtown business community,” Gish said. “From what I’ve observed, solutions to the challenges posed by this complex project are being developed in a collaborative and transparent partnership. In the past this project has been plagued by misunderstandings, miscommunication and rumor. Now we are dealing with facts and figures and making real progress.”
Click the attachments below, to read Langrock’s complete letter to the town and see a list of toxic spills in Vermont.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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