New plan pitched for replacement of Middlebury railroad bridges

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials on Tuesday outlined a new project timetable for replacing the two rail bridges in downtown Middlebury, a schedule that calls for work to span four years, but confine the most disruptive, detour-laden construction to a 10-week period from June to August of 2019.
The new schedule comes in response to the Middlebury selectboard’s pleas for a safer, more predictable and less disruptive project than the former, $40 million proposal that had been plagued by delays and criticized for its potential impacts on downtown businesses, shoppers, property owners, residents and commuters.
In response, VTrans Secretary Chris Cole assembled a new project team, headed by Wayne Symonds, manager of the agency’s Structures Program. Symonds has won statewide kudos for VTrans’ “accelerated” bridge program, though which the state has been replacing and repairing its spans more rapidly through a more aggressive, high-impact schedule.
The Sand Hill Bridge on Route 125 in East Middlebury is an example of a bridge VTrans replaced through its accelerated program. The project took 45 days, as opposed to the year or more it would have taken through conventional construction that would have included a temporary bridge.
“We have spent the last eight weeks dissecting (the rail bridges plan), pulling back the layers to take stock in where the project is,” Symonds told the Independent during a Tuesday interview.
That dissection has yielded a new VTrans construction plan and schedule for replacing the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges that calls for:
•  Work to begin next spring on the first phase of the project, to include putting extensive drainage infrastructure into the former Lazarus building site off Main Street, adjacent to Printer’s Alley; building an access road from Water Street to eventually tie into the parking area behind the Battell Block in anticipation of the Merchants Row rail bridge coming down; and under-grounding utilities behind the Battell Block and National Bank of Middlebury. Contractors will drill conduits for the various power and telecommunications lines/cables.
•  Excavation of the downtown rail corridor in 2018. This excavation will be key in ensuring that the two bridges meet a minimum 21-foot clearance level for trains that is being mandated by federal authorities. Those bridges, officials said, need to eventually accommodate double-stack freight cars — though no one is yet saying when, and even if, the rail line through Middlebury will ever be asked to accommodate such cars.
Project boosters could be driven batty by a winged wild card that could delay the rail bed work. Symonds confirmed three endangered species of bats currently make their homes in and around the Middlebury rail bridges. Symonds is working with federal environmental authorities to ensure the bats can be relocated to “alternative housing,” thus freeing crews to cut down some trees within the construction zone.
•  Removal and replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges during a 10-week period in 2019. This will be the most disruptive period of the construction project, Symonds acknowledged. It will include round-the-clock construction during all 10 weeks. No temporary bridges will be used, meaning Cross Street Bridge will be asked to accommodate traffic detours.
In what would be a major breakthrough, Vermont Railway officials and VTrans are negotiating an agreement whereby train traffic would be diverted away from Middlebury during this 10-week construction period. Previous plans called for the rail line to be disassembled and reassembled on a daily basis to ensure train flow.
Symonds explained that the period of June, July and August is a slower freight period for the train company, thus making it a less onerous time in which to cope with detours and delays.
The exact train detours — which Symonds called “very complicated — are still being worked out. Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said trains would likely be detoured to Bellows Falls, and then proceed north from there to destinations in Chittenden County and beyond.
“We’re getting close, and we’re feeling very good about that,” Symonds said of a pact with Vermont Railway. “It’s key to the success of this project.”
VTrans officials said while the crux of the downtown disruption will be during the 10 weeks in 2019, there will be some occasional street-level activity before and after that period that will result in some periodic detours and other inconveniences.
•  Final alignment of the downtown rail line, and landscaping, though August of 2020.
Acknowledging the steady deterioration of the two 1920s-era rail bridges, Symonds said VTrans will reserve two of its temporary spans to set up at Merchants Row and/or Main Street if either of those bridges is deemed unsafe during the life of the project. Meanwhile, those two rail bridges will be inspected on a quarterly basis to ensure they can safely continue to accommodate vehicles, according to Symonds.
At Tuesday’s selectboard meeting, Selectwoman Donna Donahue voiced concerns about the project’s overall timespan. The previous plan called for a wrap by 2019.
“Four (construction) seasons of April to November is a pretty big risk for this town,” she cautioned.
And Symonds cautioned various segments of the project could be disrupted by a variety of factors, including the bridge bats; potential discovery of contaminated soil that would need to be removed; prolonged right-of-way acquisition from affected property owners; the devising of a needed “HAZMAT incident management plan”; and delays in companies fulfilling their respective responsibilities in burying utilities behind the National Bank and Battell Building.
Selectman Nick Artim urged VTrans officials to keep Middlebury officials in the loop and enlist the town’s help, if need be.
“As you’re in your planning, think about the risks the town can help you minimize,” Artim said. “We’re all in this together.”
Selectwoman Laura Asermily agreed.
“We’d like to be an agent for meeting the schedule,” she said.
VTrans will hold a community gathering in Middlebury on Nov. 17 to provide more specifics on the project and answer questions from local residents, merchants and property owners.
Some of those property owners listened intently to the VTrans project presentation during Tuesday’s selectboard meeting. Among them was Edgewater Gallery owner George Dorsey. Dorsey expressed several concerns about VTrans’ plans, which he believes are overblown and will not ensure the safety of the public. Dorsey — who has previous entrepreneurial experience in rail and industrial concerns — continues to advocate for at-grade replacement of the two bridges, which he asserts could be done within three months and at a cost of less than $4 million. He believes the state could return to excavate the rail bed when/if larger freight cars are introduced along the Middlebury line.
Symonds strongly disputes Dorsey’s proposed project estimate and timeline.
Dorsey also called for the town to hire its own independent engineer to review the new VTrans plan before endorsing it.
He expressed concerns about how the town might respond to any potential hazardous material spills along the tracks and said local emergency responders are currently unable to deal with such a calamity. Middlebury dodged a major catastrophe in 2007 when a train hauling 14 fuel cars derailed in the downtown area. It’s an accident that fortunately did not result in any casualties or an environmental catastrophe.
Derailment is not the only environmental concern, according to Dorsey, who said the state has not specified how it will contain any existing contaminated soils from the rail bed. He said the state has yet to publicly disclose specifics about the alleged soil contaminants — which he argues could be harmful if breathed in by passersby during excavation.
“I’m terrified of this project,” Dorsey said during a phone interview on Wednesday.
“The town needs to operate in the best interests of the community,” he added.
State and federal officials at Tuesday’s meeting said the project will include enough money to not only ensure the project is completed, but that it is carried through in a safe manner. They said any harmful, contaminated soils could be excavated under a tent and then removed by covered truck to an approved site.
Local selectboard members said they will spend the coming weeks digesting the new VTrans plan for the downtown bridges, then follow up with comments and questions leading up to the Nov. 17 meeting. The Independent will provide more details on that meeting once a venue, agenda and time have been finalized.
“This is a credible, honest assessment of how long it’s going to take to build this project,” Symonds said. “We won’t take any longer than we need.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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