Middlebury group launches fight over downtown RR bridges
MIDDLEBURY — A group of downtown Middlebury property owners and merchants are asking Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Chris Cole to abandon the current $40-million, 4-year plan to replace the community’s two downtown rail bridges. They want to shift to a more basic project they contend could produce two new spans within around three months for approximately $5 million.
The complainants, in an 18-page submission with related background documents, argued that Middlebury doesn’t need to adhere to a minimum 21-foot vertical clearance for the new Main Street and Merchants Row bridges, as the community has been told by state and federal authorities. It is this clearance standard — designed to accommodate future double-stack freight cars — that has added considerable time and money to the project scope due to a resulting need to excavate the rail bed in downtown Middlebury.
Bristol attorney Jim Dumont, who is representing the downtown merchants and property owners, is asking VTrans, the Federal Highway Administration and the town of Middlebury to not proceed with the current $40 million plan until the project has undergone federal environmental, historic preservation and Endangered Species Act reviews. The project had been granted a “categorical exclusion” from such a comprehensive review.
“The FHWA regulation governing Categorical Exclusions prohibit use of CEs where projects involve ‘Construction of temporary access, or the closure of existing road, bridge, or ramps, that would result in major traffic disruptions,’” Dumont wrote to Cole in a letter dated this past Monday. “No reasonable person would argue that the plans under consideration in 2013 or at present did not and do not involve closure of existing roads and bridges that would result in major traffic disruption.”
Read the Dumont’s letter by clicking here.
VTrans officials last month outlined a project timetable that calls for work to span four years, but confines the most disruptive, detour-laden construction to a 10-week period from June to August of 2019. Work is currently slated to begin next spring, with installation of extensive drainage infrastructure into the former Lazarus building site off Main Street, construction of a temporary 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 the National Bank of Middlebury.
Ensuing work will include excavation of the downtown rail corridor in 2018 and replacement of the bridges in 2019, culminating in final alignment of the downtown rail line — and landscaping — in August of 2020.
Dumont and his client argue that the current project timetable will be unnecessarily disruptive and potentially deal a fatal blow to some downtown businesses.
“The latest plans call for total closure of downtown for at least 10 weeks,” Dumont wrote to Cole. “No business owner will have any customers during most of that summer. Many are concerned they will go out of business. One can hardly call this a temporary traffic delay.”
Dumont argued that the potential disruption caused by the detours, noise, dust, traffic and parking headaches during construction should trigger federal reviews of the current project.
“The latest, allegedly least disruptive, construction schedule calls for 10 weeks total closure of Merchants Row and Main Street and at least four years of temporary construction delay,” he wrote. “By law, the Categorical Exclusion does not apply; an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement must be prepared.”
Dumont said his clients share the common goals of:
• Seeing the bridges repaired as soon as possible using a less-expensive and quicker approach.
Dumont presented an estimate from Matthew LaFiandra, a local structural engineer and vice president of development for Edgewater Holdings LLC, asserting the bridges could be replaced, one at a time, at a cost of around $5 million over the course of around three months. Edgewater is owned by local businessman George Dorsey, who is one of the group represented by Dumont.
• Having a discussion about the alternatives to the project.
“The process should result in a reasonable examination of alternatives that hasn’t happened yet,” Dumont said.
The town and VTrans, early in the planning process, determined that building a rail bypass around downtown Middlebury would be financially and logistically untenable.
“The study of the alternatives that has occurred so far has been deeply flawed,” Dumont said. “Not many people have been given the information that’s been needed. For one reason or another, the public was not given the complete story.”
It’s a story — and project — that has thus far been shaped by a long history of incomplete information and oversights by project planners, according to Dumont.
One of the most significant oversights, according to Dumont, has been a minimum bridge clearance threshold that VTrans officials have said must be applied to the Middlebury rail bridges project to allow the eventual passage of double-stack cars along the state’s western rail corridor. The bridges currently provide a vertical clearance of 17 feet, 9 inches.
Middlebury officials this past February successfully applied to the Vermont Transportation Board for a clearance waiver of 21 feet, which was projected to cut some of the time and expense of the project. Financed primarily with federal money, the project is still expected to cost upwards of $40 million.
But Dumont said his research of “hundreds and hundreds of pages” of state and federal documents obtained by Public Records Act and Freedom of Information Act reveal that the town is under no obligation to rebuild the bridges with a minimum clearance of 21 feet. He noted the federal standard upon which the minimum clearance threshold is derived from the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). AREMA is a North American railway industry group that publishes recommended practices for the design, construction and maintenance of railway infrastructure.
“AREMA standards do not require 23-foot or 21-foot clearance for this project; the purpose of the project is to protect public safety by repairing two hazardous bridges, and AREMA and state law allow for that repair so long as no reduction in clearance results,” Dumont wrote in his complaint to Cole.
Cole on Tuesday acknowledged receiving the correspondence from Dumont. He said he and his staff need more time to review it.
“We are reviewing Mr. Dumont’s 18-page letter with the town of Middlebury, VTrans staff and consultants, as well as the Federal Highway Administration’s Vermont office,” Cole said. “We expect this review to take a minimum of several weeks.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter on Tuesday was also poring over the material submitted by Dumont.
“We have all along encouraged townspeople to ask the hard questions and certainly the Local Project Management Team and the selectboard have asked tough questions and worked very hard to minimize the impact on our town,” Carpenter said.
But he is worried about seeing another delay in the beginning of a project that was to have gotten under way in 2013. Meanwhile, the two 1920s-era bridges continue to deteriorate. VTrans has set aside two temporary bridges to install on Main Street and Merchants Row in case the current spans are suddenly deemed unsafe for the many tons of vehicles they are asked to support each day.
“The town needs to have the bridges replaced — we’re all in agreement on that,” Carpenter said. “But I think the last thing at this time that the project needs, given the state of our bridges and the time it takes to replace them, is to suspend work and planning, which appears to be what Mr. Dumont is asking for.
“I know the state is working hard to digest this and provide answers and work with Mr. Dumont to sure everything is done appropriately, but I’d like to see us get beyond a decade-long battle and work in partnership to get it done,” he added. “It’s high time we had movement on the project.”
Carpenter is banking on a thorough discussion of the rail bridges project — including the complaint filed by Dumont — at a Nov. 17 public forum slated for 7 p.m. in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. He is optimistic VTrans officials will have had enough time by Nov. 17 to answer at least some of the concerns in Dumont’s complaint.
Dumont raised the prospect of legal action if VTrans does not address his clients’ concerns.
“If that does happen, then I will advise my clients to consider whether they should file suit (in U.S. District Court).”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]