VTrans unveils Middlebury RR bridge plan

MIDDLEBURY — Area residents packed the Town Hall Theater on Thursday for a preview of a coming attraction that will have a four-year run in downtown Middlebury that will make everyone cheer when it shuts down.
Ironic performance art?
It’s the upcoming replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges, a $40 million project set to begin in earnest next spring and last into 2020, with the most disruptive construction pegged for a 10-week period from June to August of 2019, when both Merchants Row and Main Street will be shut down.
Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials led Thursday’s public forum on the upcoming project, which they called one of the most complex they have ever planned. It calls for replacing the two deteriorating, 1920s-era spans on Main Street and Merchants Row with a pre-cast concrete tunnel that will be 360 feet long. It will be made up of 100 pieces, each weighing around 25 tons, officials said. Work will enclose around a total of 3,500 feet of the rail line.
“We are beyond the point of small fixes and rehabilitation projects,” said Wayne Symonds, manager of the structure program for VTrans.
The project will lower the rail bed by four feet, bringing the vertical clearance for rail cars to 21 feet, up from what is currently around 18 feet. VTrans officials said the increased vertical clearance of the line will accommodate larger freight cars planned for Vermont’s western rail corridor, allow for drainage improvements, and result in realignment of the track to reduce the existing curve of the route through downtown. Officials said the current sectioned rail would be replaced by a continuous, welded variety that would be safer and reduce future train noise.
Other work will include making major drainage improvements in and around the project area that will culminate in an outflow into the Otter Creek, near the falls. Work will also include undergrounding utilities in the Printer’s Alley area.
VTrans project managers acknowledged the work will periodically produce some loud racket, loss of parking and detours for both vehicles and pedestrians during portions of four years. Some parking spaces will temporarily be lost along the town green side of Merchants Row and adjacent to Triangle Park.
Crucially, with the bridges down during that 10-week period, potential customers of almost a dozen businesses near the intersection of Merchants Row and Main Street will have to park on the south side of Otter Creek and walk across the Battell Bridge to get to those businesses.
The bridge replacement component of 10 weeks is keeping in line with VTrans’ “Accelerated Bridge Construction” program through which workers will completely close a road to get a bridge completed more quickly, rather than the conventional method of compromising speed in order to keep one road lane continuously open.
Locally, the Sand Hill Bridge in East Middlebury was replaced in six weeks through the accelerated program. It’s one of 50 accelerated bridge projects VTrans has completed during the past five years, according to Symonds.
“During the past five years, we have not missed a completion date on any of our accelerated bridge projects,” he said.
Symonds and his colleagues also discussed what has been — and continues to be — a fierce bone of contention between state transportation authorities and some local officials and downtown property owners: The 21-foot minimum vertical clearance for the tunnels. A group of property owners, through attorney James Dumont, have challenged the veracity of that height mandate through an 18-page letter to Transportation Secretary Chris Cole. The group contends the town has every right to replace the bridges at their current height within three months for around $5 million.
At Thursday’s meeting, attended by more than 100 people, Symonds took issue with that position, which VTrans and Federal Highway Administration lawyers are reviewing, along with other issues raised in the Dumont letter.
He said Vermont law requires VTrans, when presented with a bridge in need of replacement or significant renovation, to look at a 23-foot clearance threshold. Middlebury successfully appealed to the Legislature to reduce that threshold to 21 feet. Symonds argued that given the regional move to 21-foot vertical clearance, the growing demand for larger freight cars, the recent investments made in upgrading the western rail corridor, and Middlebury’s current status as a “choke point” for freight commerce along the rail line due to its 18-foot-high bridges, it would be highly improbable that the Vermont Transportation Board would grant a clearance waiver below the 21-foot standard.
“This is really the right thing for this corridor,” Symonds said. “In the last 10 years, VTrans and the state of Vermont has invested $100 million to increase capacity, reduce restrictions and try to get a 21-foot (tall) rail car through the western corridor.”
He also called 21 feet “the height for the next 100 years.”
Symonds was asked to explain if it would save significant money and time to replace the two bridges with 19 feet of vertical clearance instead of 21. His answer was “no,” due in part to the requisite drainage system and box-like concrete structure that he said needs to be installed under the decks of the two bridges to keep out water and provide extra support.
“Even if we had a bridge structure that had 19-foot clearance, most of the structure would be all the same; it would be just raised a couple of feet,” he said. “It is valid to say we would save some on excavation, and save some time in the ultimate schedule, but 90 percent of the effort is still there, and it is not going to significantly change the price or the duration of the project.”
Installing conventional bridges rapidly would place nearby buildings at greater risk of damage, according to Symonds. Not having the bottom slab of the concrete box, he added, would force construction closer to the nearby buildings that need extra protection.
“This is the best structure to manage the risk to the buildings adjacent to the cut,” Symonds said of the concrete box design. “The (St. Stephen’s) Church, the (Bourdon) Insurance building, the Battell Block, the National Bank of Middlebury — this is absolutely the least-risk structure because this bottom slab is the support for the bridge.”
   THE DOWNTOWN MIDDLEBURY streetscape in 2020 would include green space over the railroad following the upcoming, $40 million project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
Image courtesy of Vermont Agency of Transportation
Mark Alexander of Kubricky Construction and Aaron Guyette of VHB Engineers described some of the major construction to unfold into 2020.
Some of the prep work is to begin later this year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with tree cutting along the project corridor. This work is being timed to coincide with the hibernation period of rare bat species that live near the bridge, officials said.
Guyette said 2017 would include construction of a temporary access road stretching from the end of Water Street, along the Otter Creek, to serve the Battell Block parking lot when the Merchants Row bridge is out of commission. Micro-tunneling and drilling for the new drainage system will take place around the former Lazarus Building foundation at the intersection of Main Street and Printer’s Alley, which will be closed at several intervals during the four-year project. Workers will also begin relocation of utilities.
Alexander said the temporary road to the Battell Block will be signaled and take around six weeks to build.
A temporary service road will also be built in the Marble Works, along a grassy slope leading to the drainage outfall pipe at the falls.
Work in 2017 is expected to start in June and last until December. It will involve conventional workdays of eight to 10 hours, Monday through Friday, officials said. There will be short-term lane closures with some impact to traffic, parking and pedestrians.
Work in 2018 is expected to include relocating utilities, initial excavation of the rail line, and installation of support structures to fortify the rail line. Construction is expected to last from April/Mary to November/December, according to Guyette. The space along Triangle Park and along the park side of Merchants Row will be temporarily lost. There will be short-term lane closures. Workers are scheduled to be on the job Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with some extended work hours.
Construction workers will be told to park outside of the downtown and receive shuttle rides to the project site.
Plans call for 100 pre-cast concrete tunnel pieces to be set and assembled in the rail bed within a one-week period in 2018, according to Guyette. Each piece will weigh 25 tons, with delivery at one per truck.
2019’S BIG DIG
And 2019 is expected to bring the most disruptive period to downtown Middlebury. The 10-week replacement of the bridges will involve around-the-clock work, with Main Street and Merchants Row put out of commission.  Officials predict two weeks of drilling and blasting.
“The beginning will be worse, and it will ease as we go,” Alexander said.
While there will be parking losses and detours from Merchants Row and Main Street, officials said affected businesses will remain accessible to shoppers — by foot. Jill Barrett, public outreach coordinator for the project, said there will be campaigns to reinforce the fact that Middlebury will be open for business, and also present the construction as an educational opportunity.
VTrans has drawn heat for picking June-August for the street closures. It is a prime revenue period for many local merchants, who count on summer and holiday sales to take them through the slower spring season. Guyette said that period was “carefully chosen” because it will provide more reliable weather patterns for construction.
The work schedule in 2019 will involve a lot of 20-hour days, project managers said.
Post-closure work will also take place toward the end of 2019, with the installation of curbs, sidewalks, bridge railing and grading.
In 2020, residents will notice final construction of the railroad tracks, final paving and line striping, installation of crosswalks, and landscaping, VTrans officials said. Plans call for the project to be completely done by the summer of 2020, according to Guyette.
Symonds said he was confident in what he called an “aggressive, credible” project schedule, though he acknowledged it could be delayed by another Tropical Storm Irene or lawsuit. He said VTrans will look for ways to shorten the 10-week closure period in 2019, and indicated Merchants Row could be reopened a little sooner.
“We are not taking any more time than we think we need,” Symonds said. “We still have a lot more homework to do.”
Symonds, at the prompting of a forum participant, acknowledged the current schedule is in part contingent on a tricky agreement that would allow Vermont Railway to temporarily divert its freight traffic away from Middlebury during the height of construction.
“VTrans is in negotiation with Vermont Railway and Genesee & Wyoming, which is the owner of New England Central Railroad (NECR), to come to an agreement to take the freight to another corridor for that 10-week closure,” Symonds said.
It just so happens that NECR is Vermont Railway’s biggest competitor, which complicates the deal, officials said.
“It sounds to me that an agreement between these competing railroads is not a done deal,” resident Marshall Eddy said.
Symonds expects to see a draft agreement within a week and hopes a final pact will be forged by next summer. If that falls through, planners conceded they are going to have to make some major adjustments to the schedule.
Residents at the public forum asked questions about construction noise, including blasting, drilling and trucks.
Alexander said noisy conditions would be unavoidable, but added workers would try to time such work so that it does not coincide with major community events and nighttime hours. VTrans will seek to equip equipment with quitter back-up alarm systems, he said.
Some attendees also voiced concerns about potential contaminants in the soil that will be excavated from the rail line. Middlebury residents still vividly recall the near catastrophe in 2007 when a train hauling 14 fuel cars derailed in the downtown area. Residents have raised concern about residual contamination from that derailment, along with other substances that might have leaked from rail cars traveling through town over the decades.
Alexander said the state has conducted tests of the rail bed soil that have indicated contamination, “but non-hazardous. Northing out of the ordinary here.”
VTrans officials said the soil would be properly contained and removed.
That did not completely assuage residents’ concerns, however. The project was granted a “categorical exclusion” from a more rigorous process involving federal environmental, historic preservation and Endangered Species Act reviews.
Guyette said water that passes through the project’s drainage system will be captured in catch basins for treatment before reaching the Otter Creek.
Brad Ketterling of VHB added, “This project will be subject to a NEPA re-evaluation that will take into account project changes and changes to potential environmental impacts going forward. Any necessary permits that this project requires will be sought.”
Bruce Hiland is manager of the Battell Block, the downtown’s anchor property for retail, office and residential uses. He reiterated his concerns about the potential impacts of the project.
Hiland called the VTrans presentation a “very slick” sales pitch that was akin to “putting lipstick on the pig.”
He said the presentation had not provided enough confidence in how VTrans would be able to address residents’ skepticism about greater vertical clearance for the bridges and concerns about water drainage into the Otter Creek and environmental permitting.
“All you need to do is have a hazmat spill of gasoline or some chemical … and you’ve got yourself a very different world,” Hiland said. “You’ve got a bomb in the middle of Middlebury.”
After enumerating potential project pitfalls, including potential lawsuits and missed deadlines, Hiland asked, “What’s your ‘Plan B?’”
Symonds responded that at there is no “Plan B” at this point, and added, “There is no project without risks to the schedule. Here, there are some risks that are unquantifiable.”
Middlebury Fire Chief Dave Shaw said his department fully supports the project, seen in part as a way to improve the rail that Shaw said contributed to the 2007 derailment.
Other Middlebury officials vowed to be vigilant about the work to come.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges Middlebury has faced,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said.
“We want to make sure we do everything we can to maintain the vitality of our downtown.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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