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VTrans confirms a delay for Middlebury rail bridges project

MONTPELIER — Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials on Thursday confirmed that a $40 million  project to replace Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges will not start this fall, as previously promised. State officials are now targeting September for the release of a revised construction timetable for work expected to envelope downtown Middlebury for the better part of two years.
Middlebury officials learned early last week of a possible construction delay, driven by the complexity of the project, lengthy negotiations of right-of-way easements, and concerns over a related storm water containment plan for the adjacent Otter Creek.
A group of Middlebury officials met on Thursday with Transportation Secretary Chris Cole to express their frustration about yet another delay to a project that was originally expected to launch in 2014. The work will largely involve replacing the rapidly deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row spans, an undertaking that will result in temporary detours, dust, noise and loss of parking downtown.
The agency’s most recent 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.
Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project, was among those present for Thursday’s talk with VTrans officials.
“The town delivered a no-holds-barred message to VTrans and in general was pleased about the candid exchanges that took place during the meeting and with how Secretary Cole and the VTrans team propose to move forward,” Gish said.
Town representatives, according to Gish, pressed VTrans to show that it is “all in” on the project with an “aggressive, all-hands-on-deck schedule and a clear demonstration that this project is an urgent priority for VTrans.
“Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter and Local Project Management Team Chairman Dean George expressed the town’s deep frustration with the unexpected delay and with the lack of progress shown by engineering firm VHB after a considerable investment of taxpayer dollars in the project,” Gish added.
Cole told the town he has appointed VTrans Chief Engineer Kevin Marshia and Wayne Symonds, lead structural engineer with the agency’s Accelerated Bridge Program, to head a task force that will examine “every aspect of the schedule,” according to Gish. Symonds was the lead in replacing East Middlebury’s Sand Hill Bridge in 2014 — a task that was completed in about four months.
“This project presents a unique and complex set of challenges,” Cole stated on Friday in an email exchange with the Addison Independent. “We recognize the need to balance the economic health of Middlebury with the urgency of getting this work done and we are working closely with the town to address those needs. We have assembled a top level experienced team at VTrans with a proven track record of recognizing opportunities for innovation and delivering complicated projects to take the lead internally to move this project forward in the most expeditious manner possible.”
Marshia and Symonds will meet with the Middlebury selectboard on Aug. 9 to explain “what went wrong with the schedule and how those issues and concerns are being addressed,” according to Gish. VTrans officials plan to give the town a firm construction timeline next month.
In the meantime, state officials promised to monitor the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges to make sure they can continue to support the large volume of traffic they currently accommodate, Gish said. Built in the 1920s, the spans are showing substantial wear and tear, including missing chunks of concrete.
“In response to continuing concern about the state of Middlebury’s deteriorated bridges, VTrans noted that a state inspection had taken place on April 20,” Gish said. “Additional inspections will take place as frequently as needed in the coming months to ensure the safety of the community.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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