Editorial: Shirking responsibility? Did the town pass the torch too soon?

Did the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday put their trust in VTRANS ahead of its own responsibility to assure the best interests of the town’s residents are met? That’s a legitimate quandary in light of their vote to sign over authority for VTrans to control and manage the $40 million project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. The issue addressed at Tuesday’s meeting was whether the town should turn the responsibility of the project over to the state now or, presumably, wait a few more weeks until the selectboard could get assurances that several significant questions were answered to the town’s satisfaction and then make a decision.
The board voted 6-1 on Tuesday in favor of handing it off to the state with only Donna Donahue voting against the motion. Her reasoning was simple: “I think it’s a mistake to make decisions now. I want as much information as possible before I sign an agreement.”
Those selectboard members approving the transfer uniformly said they had discussed the issue long enough and were comfortable that the state would handle the rail/bridge project with the town’s best interest in mind. Proponents also expressed concerns that further delays might jeopardize the full benefits of the project and that it was in the town’s best interest to green-light the AOT to get the project underway.
Still, Middlebury residents might wonder whether the selectboard passed the torch too soon.
But before passing judgment, let’s back up a minute to some unfinished business: Back on Oct. 31, attorney James Dumont filed an 18-page letter addressed to Vermont Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole in which Dumont, on behalf of Middlebury resident George Dorsey and others, asked for clarification on several points and correcting of the record on others, among which were:
• Correcting the record to show that a 23-foot or 21-foot clearance would not be mandated by state and/or federal law, if the project were considered bridge reconstruction or alteration, rather than new construction, and therefore the existing height (18 to 19 feet) of the bridges would be sufficient. Logic would also suggest that if reconstruction of the two bridges is the town’s primary concern, then current height limits meet the required federal and state standards, and the larger project is to meet other statewide needs (improving the Western Rail corridor) at the expense of the town’s distress;
• that several federal and state permits related to environmental concerns, including storm run-off into the Otter Creek, have not been filed for or received;
• that hazardous waste material has been found within the base material around the tracks to be replaced, and therefore will require hazardous waste treatment and removal procedures (provisions that were not previously included in the state’s plans);
• that the safety and design of the tunnel’s drainage system should be questioned, while also ensuring that federal funding for the project is guaranteed to completion;
• that the current bridges are judged safe enough to endure the length of the project or up to six years, and if not, that they be replaced first.
In response, Sec. Cole confirmed he would address the questions by mid-December. More recently, Cole has postponed that response until mid-January, if he retains his post in the new administration.
Not all of the points in Dumont’s letter were showstoppers, but a couple could be. And the most critical of the points suggested that, in a worst-case scenario of another train derailment of hazardous materials, dangerous gases or liquids could be spilled under the tunnel and the fumes or gases could become explosive. Those are reasonable points to make and for the town to research. At the very least, it would have been prudent for the selectboard to delay a decision until after Sec. Cole had answered the complaint, and perhaps agreed to resolve any legitimate risks posed by the project.
All is not lost, however. In the papers signed Tuesday transferring management of the project over to VTrans, the state agreed to two important town requests: an extension of the town’s right to review the project before signing off on it from three weeks to “a reasonable time period,” and agreeing to hire an independent engineer to review the project to make sure the design and construction is sound and following best practices. (See story, Page 1A.)
To that end, the town selectboard must be diligent in their efforts to hire an appropriate engineer or engineers skilled in railway tunnels, drainage and the transport of hazardous materials to make a thorough review of the project. The town should also use the “reasonable time period” to span the engineer’s report and an AOT response to the 18-page complaint — as well as time to propose best solutions to any shortcomings discovered.
We are fortunate that state government in Vermont is, by and large, responsive to community requests and the AOT team leaders on this project have worked with the town to deliver a viable project. That does not, however, relieve the selectboard of its principle role — to represent and advocate for its residents’ best interests until all doubts and concerns are erased. It’s difficult to see how all concerns are alleviated with a project that has yet to be fully designed or reviewed, and with an outstanding complaint waiting for the secretary’s response.
To trust the state to do the town’s bidding is, at best, playing an unnecessarily weak hand. At worst, it forces opponents to file legal action to stop what they consider a project fraught with dangers that could be avoided. A middle ground might be to pursue talks to maintain the town’s legal status over any objectionable developments that arise, while conceding the AOT has the town’s permission to proceed. None are great options, but we’re here because the torch was passed.
Angelo Lynn

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