Middlebury town officials to answer bridges filing

MIDDLEBURY — State and federal transportation authorities are targeting mid-December for their formal response to an 18-page complaint letter filed on Oct. 31 by opponents of the looming downtown Middlebury rail bridges project.
In the meantime, officials promised planning for the estimated $40 million undertaking will proceed.
“The Vermont Agency of Transportation’s position has been that the project is moving forward,” Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the project, told the town selectboard on Tuesday. “They take the (complaint) letter seriously. Their legal team and the attorneys (with the Federal Highway Administration) are doing their due diligence on it. But I think from Secretary (Chris) Cole on down, the word is that the project is moving forward.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter echoed that point.
“There’s always the potential for litigation, but (VTrans’) position is that they are moving forward with the project, is what they told us,” Carpenter said.
Bristol attorney Jim Dumont wrote the letter to Cole on behalf of what he said were several downtown property owners. They oppose the current plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a project that would include substantial excavation of the rail bed, a sophisticated drainage system and a temporary access road to the Battell Block parking area.
The project opponents, who are not specifically identified in the letter, contend the plan should have undergone federal environmental, historic preservation and Endangered Species Act reviews and that a more modest replacement of the two spans could be done for around $5 million in three months.
“We are saying their plan is incomplete,” said George Dorsey, one of the complainants, on Wednesday.
“It’s better not to dig the hole until you know what you’re going to put in it,” he added, metaphorically.
Gish said VTrans officials would address the premise of a more modest bridge replacement project at a community forum set for Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. That meeting will feature a 45-minute presentation (with graphics) by VTrans, followed by a question-and-answer period of more than an hour, according to Gish.
He said VTrans planners will also be prepared to address questions about potential environmental impacts, the minimum vertical clearance mandate of 21 feet for the spans, and duration of construction. The latest VTrans plan 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.
“There are some complicated issues to work through,” Gish acknowledged of the weeks to come.
Work is tentatively slated to begin late next spring.
“We hope to hear from a lot of people whose voices have not yet been heard,” Gish said of the Thursday meeting.
Carpenter said VTrans has pledged to hold additional local meetings to clarify planning and the work schedule and to take feedback from those affected by the project.
“This isn’t a ‘one-and-done’ meeting,” Carpenter said of Thursday’s gathering.
Gish told the selectboard transportation officials have been meeting privately with various downtown stakeholders to talk about right-of-way issues and potential disruption they might face.
As of Tuesday, VTrans had met — or was scheduled to meet with — representatives of St. Stephens Episcopal Church, the National Bank of Middlebury, owners of the Marble Works shopping complex, local fire and emergency response agencies, Bourdon Insurance, Porter Medical Center, Addison County Transit Resources, Battell Block, Town Hall Theater and the Better Middlebury Partnership.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard:
•  Declined a request to rename the section of Water Street — from Cross Street to Charles Avenue — “Charles Avenue.” The request came from Water Street resident Drew Campbell, who argued the current configuration of the roads in the neighborhood is confusing, to the extent that “a lot of people” already think the portion of Water Street in question is actually Charles Avenue.
Several residents of the neighborhood encouraged the board on Tuesday to maintain the status quo, pointing to the expense and logistics of address changes for those affected — including the Mary Johnson Children’s Center.
The board agreed to not pursue the name change, unless affected residents change their minds. In the meantime, the board — with input from Campbell and other neighbors — will consider new signage to better differentiate Charles Avenue and Water Streets.
•  Voted unanimously to grant a First Class Liquor License to The Diner restaurant at 66 Merchants Row.
•  Appointed resident Mark Wilch to a vacancy on the town’s Parks & Recreation Committee. There remains one more committee vacancy to fill.
•  Adopted an ordinance to regulate commercial activity on public property. Any sidewalk sale or event, such as a farmer’s market, would need to apply for an assemblage permit if it was not on private property.
•  Agreed to buy winter sand from J.P. Carrara at $9.25 per ton, and a new RAM 1500 pickup truck for the Public Works Department from Foster Motors for $30,662.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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