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Town of Middlebury ‘fires’ project engineer

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury has cut ties with an engineering firm that local officials said exhibited “a pattern of overpromising and under-delivering” on services — thus far for payment amounting to $3,048,539 — to lay the groundwork for the upcoming replacement of the downtown Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
 But Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials confirmed that it will continue to employ the company — Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB) — for the duration of the $40 million project, now projected to get underway next spring.
The Middlebury selectboard registered its concerns through a pointed letter signed by Chairman Brian Carpenter. The town recently ceded primary management of the project to VTrans, largely for liability reasons. And VTrans, as the new project manager, is now free to make its own choice of engineering consultant — which will be VHB.
“While the town is exercising its right to terminate the agreement for convenience, the Middlebury selectboard wants to express deep frustration with what it perceives as VHB’s failure to live up to its professional commitments to the town,” Carpenter wrote in his Aug. 9 letter on behalf of the board. “This frustration is shared by members of the Local Project Management Team who were assigned responsibility for overseeing the town’s involvement in the rail project and by many in the community whose professional and personal lives have been impacted by the project.”
Carpenter cited examples of what he considered poor service.
•  “Specifically, well into June, VHB continued to inform the town that the Early Release Package would begin in late fall and replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges would take place in 2017,” Carpenter wrote. “On June 28, VHB delivered a roll plan for display at the Middlebury town offices with those dates clearly displayed. Repeated requests for an update of the last schedule provided by VHB in March 2016 went unanswered.”
The “Early Release Package” is to be the first phase of the project, to include extending an access road from Water Street to tie into the parking area behind the Battell Block before the Merchants Row rail bridge comes down. It also calls for installation of a drainage system for the rail bridges project, culminating in a 5-foot-diameter conduit to take water away from the railroad track area and deposit it into Otter Creek.
•  “VHB met with key downtown property owners on April 27 and committed to providing them with a plan for safeguarding their historic buildings within a short period,” Carpenter wrote. “Fifteen weeks later, these key stakeholders in our community are still waiting.”
Richard M. Tetreault, deputy secretary of VTrans, said although he acknowledged the town’s concerns, taking VHB out of the mix at this point would likely force additional delays in a mammoth project that was to have originally started last year. Work is expected to last through 2018 and bring noise, dust, nighttime lighting and parking challenges to downtown Middlebury.
“The (town’s) letter wasn’t by any means a surprise to us; we knew it was coming,” Tetreault said in a recent phone interview. “We collectively shared their concerns. We are certainly in support of the town’s letter, though everyone probably recognizes that when you have a design team with that much history and working knowledge on a project that you’re trying to get through as quickly as possible, if we, the agency, now took over the project cold without that institutional knowledge, there would be a ramp-up time.
“We feel confident that, knowing that we recognize collectively the concerns that have been raised, that we can work with VHB and manage the situation accordingly,” Tetreault added. “We certainly don’t want to remove them from a team with the design knowledge that they have accumulated.”
Middlebury officials realize their dismissal of VHB was just temporary. But they served notice they will be expecting better service going forward.
“While VTrans has indicated that it intends to continue its working relationship with VHB on the project, know that VHB has much to do to re-earn the trust of Middlebury,” Carpenter wrote.
It should be noted that VHB has provided engineering services for several other Middlebury-area projects during the past few decades, most notably for the $16 million Cross Street Bridge. Town officials praised that planning/construction team when the bridge was opened on schedule and on budget back in 2010.
Meanwhile, local project manager Jim Gish said VHB should not bear all the blame for rail bridges project scheduling.
“VHB is the focal point of the town’s frustration with project progress, but Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole was quite clear in stating that VTrans takes full ownership of the failure to develop a credible project schedule,” Gish said.
The Independent reached out to VHB officials for comment on the town’s rail bridges complaints, and received the following emailed reply from David Saladino, VHB’s managing director for Vermont:
“VHB will continue on the project now being advanced by VTrans. VHB has enjoyed a longstanding partnership with the town of Middlebury, delivering a number of successful infrastructure projects. We are committed to collaborating with the town and VTrans to advance this important and complex project through its completion.”

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