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Editorial: Rail/bridge plan lacks clarity

In Middlebury, there could have been a different story to the downtown’s railway/bridge conundrum. The state Agency of Transportation could have suggested that the town replace the two crumbling bridges over Merchants Row and Main Street with precast concrete — a process that would have taken a few weeks of road closures per bridge. Once those were replaced, and the walls underneath were widened to allow safer passage for the trains, the railway bed could have routinely been shored up at its existing elevation and new welded tracks installed with little disruption to the town or rail traffic.
The cost of that scenario has been informally estimated at about $4.5 million to $6 million.
Instead, the decision by VTrans was to take this opportunity to tackle one of the major impediments along the Western Corridor to achieving a 21-foot clearance that could, at some distance point in the future, be used to transport double-stack railcars. That decision thrust this relatively simple local project into federal hands, forced it to comply with federal standards (that were unnecessary if the tracks had stayed at grade), and which now subjects the downtown to four years of construction that includes — as per the latest plan — 10 weeks of almost a complete shutdown of the Main Street-Merchants Row area during an upcoming summer.
In the best practice of trying to get along and help the state progress, over the past two years the town selectboard and most of the town’s businesspeople have worked hard to make this project feasible. It was OK to take a few lumps if it was in the best interests of the state and if, in the end, the progress also benefitted the town.
But multiple plans later, the state and the town are increasingly at odds — and there is a simple reason for that: The expanded federal project does little to benefit the town. Rather, the project primarily benefits the railway company and a few larger businesses, while causing significant damage to the downtown.
Here’s why:
• In the first scenario, the town’s bridges are replaced with little loss of business to local merchants. In the current AOT proposal, the harm to business is significant, our lives are disrupted for a prolonged time, yet we end up with the same new bridges and improved railway.
• Second, if the railway bed is beefed up and the rails are redone with welded track, the tracks will be as safe (maybe safer) without having to manage the engineering feats involved in blasting bedrock and trenching three feet lower, and dealing with the resultant pooling of rainwater, stirring up known hazardous waste in the rail bed, as well as structural damage to adjacent historic churches and buildings.
• Third, passenger rail service would be as efficient with the underpasses at the current height of 19 feet as they would at 21 feet. Passenger rail service does benefit the wider community. But the 21-foot clearance, which is why the project balloons from $5 million to $50 million, only benefits freight traffic — and that’s not even current traffic. That’s projected traffic that might come 10-15-20 years from now. Furthermore, even if some freight might be moved along this line, it is not a major route. Rather it is a spur line that is never expected to carry significant enough freight that would be meaningful to Vermont’s economy. Rather, such freight could be moved in smaller railcars or by truck as it is today. And, again, moving freight along these tracks does not benefit the larger community — it benefits a handful of businesses, but is that reason to have taxpayers finance a $45 million subsidy to those few businesses, while causing what could be irreparable harm to several downtown merchants? Where is the parity in that equation?
Middlebury selectboard chairman Brian Carpenter pens a calm and rational response in a letter to the editor in today’s paper (see page 11A, “Ask hard questions at upcoming rail bridge forum”) to a previous letter that spelled out some of the troubles with the current plan. In Carpenter’s response, in which he is speaking for the selectboard, he acknowledges the validity of differing opinions, and asks the public to attend a Nov. 17 forum on the issue, learn about the current VTrans proposal, and then judge the pros and cons.
It’s good advice. Please plan to attend.
Angelo Lynn

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