VTrans responds to bridge concerns

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials on Aug. 9 vowed to win back Middlebury officials’ trust following what have been a series of delays in launching the $40 million replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges in the heart of the downtown.
That promise came from a new project management team that VTrans Secretary Chris Cole appointed a few weeks ago after selectboard members blasted the agency for its announcement that the rail bridges replacement effort would not begin until next spring, as opposed to the this fall, as previously targeted.
Local officials conveyed their dissatisfaction to Cole during a meeting in Montpelier late last month. His response included appointing VTrans Chief Engineer Kevin Marshia and Wayne Symonds, lead structural engineer with the agency’s Accelerated Bridge Program, to head a task force to examine “every aspect” of the bridge construction schedule. Symonds was in charge of the rapid replacement of East Middlebury’s Sand Hill Bridge back in 2014.
The selectboard meeting in East Middlebury last week also included VTrans Project Engineer Joel Perrigo and Jim Gish, the town’s community liaison.
“What we’ve heard loud and clear … is that there’s a credibility and trust issue,” Marshia told the board at the gathering held in the East Middlebury United Methodist Church.
“We intend to earn back that trust, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Marshia and Symonds fielded questions and comments of concern from Middlebury officials, who among other things called for better communication between VTrans and the town. Selectboard members reiterated the community’s concern about a project that is expected to bring noise, dust, detours and parking challenges to the downtown area for the better part of two years. In the meantime, officials are concerned about the stability of the current 1920s-era rail bridges that are showing rapid signs or deterioration while continuing to serve a lot of traffic — including some massive trucks.
“Those bridges are in peril,” said Selectman Nick Artim.
He asked the VTrans officials if the town should consider re-routing some of the heavier traffic.
Gish suggested that the state consider inspecting the two bridges on a quarterly basis, instead of annually.
Symonds said VTrans will do whatever is necessary to ensure the bridges remain safe, but added he is confident the structures remain strong enough to handle the wait they are being asked to support.
“If we thought right now there was a safety issue, or something we could do to get a more dependable end of life for the bridges, we would do that,” Symonds said.
VTrans officials said they’ll have more information to share about the project schedule next month. At that point, they plan to ask Middlebury officials and residents for input into decisions that will shape how the work takes place. For example, residents will be asked to weigh in on the prospect of 20-hour work days, or shorter work days that could accommodate longer periods of quiet time while slightly expanding the duration of construction.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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