Another delay for Middlebury rail bridges project?

MIDDLEBURY — Amtrak prides itself on having more than an 80-percent track record for punctuality when it comes to its “Vermonter” train route from St. Albans to Washington, D.C.
But punctuality is not a term being used to describe the timetable for replacement of Middlebury’s two rail bridges, as local officials confirmed the massive, $40 million project is likely to be delayed yet again.
Original planning called for the replacement of the Merchants Row and Main Street spans to begin back in 2014. The latest forecast was for preliminary work — installation of drainage infrastructure and a new, temporary access to the Battell block parking lot — to begin this fall, with the “big dig” slated for the spring of 2017.
But Jim Gish, Middlebury’s project liaison, told the selectboard on Tuesday that the rail bridges project is again facing a delay due to three issues:
•  Negotiations between the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and affected Middlebury property owners have taken longer than expected to negotiate right-of-way agreements.
•  All contractors responsible for executing the project design plan want more time to fully vet all aspects of construction.
•  Stakeholders continue to question a proposed storm water management plan that includes a metal shutter that could be manually lowered (with a hand wheel) over the outflow pipe to the Otter Creek. The shutter could stop chemicals or other hazardous spills from flowing directly into the river.
So Gish, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter and Local Project Management Team (LPMT) member Dean George are slated to meet with top VTrans officials this Thursday, July 28, to discuss a revised schedule for a project that was to have been substantially completed by the end of 2018.
Officials on Tuesday were not venturing any guesses on what the revised timetable would be for a massive undertaking that has downtown property owners, residents, merchants and shoppers on edge in anticipation of 20-hour construction days that will bring detours, noise, dust and reduced parking to the core of Middlebury Village.
“The message that will be delivered (on Thursday) is that we need a firm commitment to a date by which we can see a revised schedule, and we need a firm date by which we will see a revised agreement between the town and VTrans,” Gish said. “Beyond that, the message is going to be, ‘Middlebury is all-in on this project, and has been for some time. VTrans, you need to be all-in on this project, too.’”
Middlebury has been pressing for a new contract that preserves the town’s ability for input into the project but that places VTrans in charge of the logistics of construction. The new contract would also make it clear that VTrans assumes liability for anything that might go wrong during the complex job — such as related damage to nearby properties and/or potential contamination of Otter Creek if the drainage plans prove inadequate to contain any spill that might occur within the adjacent rail bed.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” Gish said of the status of the project. “I think the meeting on Thursday should be a good opportunity for VTrans to hear the town’s concerns in full force.”
Gish said VTrans Secretary Chris Cole and Deputy Secretary Richard Tetreault are both expected to be at Thursday’s meeting.
“It’s a frustrating position for us to be in,” Gish said of the anticipated project delay. “We have been working hard to make this project work over the last many months and also building trust and credibility in the town about this project and schedule. It’s not just VTrans’ credibility and (project engineer) VHB’s credibility that’s at stake here; it’s the town’s credibility as well.”
Selectboard members were clearly irritated by the anticipated setback for the project timetable.
Selectman Nick Artim said another delay would not merely be inconvenient, it would raise more concerns about the stability of the two downtown bridges that are deteriorating at a rapid rate. Town officials have been concerned about a catastrophic failure of the bridges, or an inspection that could force their closure.
“The number one concern is the safety of those bridges,” he said.
Middlebury Selectwoman and LPMT member Donna Donahue was most outspoken in her criticism of VTrans.
“I have no confidence whatsoever in a revised date,” Donahue said, noting a history of missed benchmarks in planning for a job that has already seen $4 million spent on engineering over two-and-a-half years “and we still don’t have a plan that is accurate.”
Residents, she said, look to public officials for accurate information on major events that will affect them.
“(VTrans) has lost that confidence, as far as I’m concerned,” Donahue said.
“It shows incredible, gross incompetence, is what it shows,” she added of the missed construction targets. “I am very upset by this.”
In a related move, the selectboard voted unanimously to ask VTrans to continue funding for Gish as project liaison.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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