Editorial: The 19-foot option for rail bridges; If it’s viable, nothing else beats it

A public meeting this Thursday by the Vermont Agency of Transportation to update residents on the Middlebury downtown bridge/rail project will hopefully do more than review a plan that has come under fire. Rather, it is hoped the AOT will come prepared to answer questions posed in an 18-page document drafted by Bristol attorney James Dumont on behalf of several Middlebury residents that skewers the proposed four-year project.
The central thrust of that document rejects the AOT’s contention that a 21-foot height clearance for the two bridges is mandated by federal rail statutes. The document argues that contrary to what the AOT has told town officials, the current 19-foot height is sufficient to replace the deteriorating bridges as long as the rail bed is not reconstructed. New rails could be put down and the rail bed restored without triggering the AREMA standards the state AOT has long said were necessary. If the 19-foot clearance were sufficient, opponents of the project say, the deteriorating bridges could be replaced at-grade within a few months time and at a cost of about $5-$6 million, rather than the projected $40 million for the AOT’s four-year plan.
The public meeting, scheduled weeks ago by the AOT and before Dumont’s challenge, is set for Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater. The meeting is slated to discuss the project schedule over its projected four-year time frame. The community is invited to send questions and concerns to town liaison Jim Gish, at [email protected].
The AOT’s “modified plan,” which was covered in a story on Oct. 13, includes its plan to rip up the rail bed to achieve a 21-foot clearance during an intensive 10-week stretch from June to August of 2019. Work on that plan would begin in the spring of 2017, including putting extensive draining infrastructure in the former Lazarus building adjacent to Printer’s Alley, building an access road from Water Street to tie into the parking area behind the Battell Block; and under-grounding utilities behind the Battell Block and the area behind the National Bank of Middlebury.
The second year of work would be spent excavating the downtown rail corridor, meaning that noise, dust, and all the ills of construction would be ongoing in 2018, even as Main Street and Merchants Road were kept open. By the summer of 2019, the bridges would be torn out and replaced during the 10-week period, during which traffic will be closed to the downtown and diverted across the Cross Street Bridge. Construction would be 24-7 for those 10 weeks, completely closing access to the Main Street-Merchant Row areas of the downtown. Before and after that 10-week period, there would also be occasional road closures and inconveniences to downtown traffic flow and parking.
In the fourth year, final alignment of the downtown rail line and landscaping would continue through August 2020. The construction season during each of those four years would span from April to November, a length that selectboard member Donna Donahue noted was “a pretty big risk” for many of the downtown merchants — or, to put it bluntly, four years of constant construction and parking issues may doom many of those businesses.
There is also a high probability the project might be delayed because of several unknowns, extending the project for months and at a higher cost. At issue, Symonds admitted, was the possibility of having to deal with endangered bats living under the current bridges; the potential discovery of contaminated soil that would require specialized removal; the creation of a HAZMAT incident management plan and delays by companies burying utility lines.
But the overriding issue is whether the AOT misled town officials into believing they had no choice other than to accept a 21-foot height clearance for the bridges, and whether staying at 19 feet is an option. If it is, there is little doubt the best plan for the town’s sake is to maintain the 19-foot clearance and a plan to fix the bridges in a single construction season. Until that question is adequately resolved, everything else is a distraction.
Angelo S. Lynn

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