Middlebury rail bridges project delayed for at least a year
UPDATED with comment from attorney Jim Dumont.
MIDDLEBURY — A four-year, $40 million overhaul of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges will be delayed for at least another year, in light of a decision by state and federal transportation authorities to submit the project to an Environmental Assessment.
Preliminary efforts to replace of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges was slated to begin this winter, with work focusing on an associated drainage system and a temporary road to serve the Battell Block parking area. The most disruptive work had been scheduled for a 10-week period during the summer of 2019, when both the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges were due to be supplanted by a concrete tunnel. Work is also to include excavating and improving the downtown rail bed; a major, temporary detour of Vermont Rail train traffic has been in the works to accommodate the project.
But the massive undertaking — once targeted for a 2014 start — is again on hold. Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter confirmed Thursday morning that the Vermont Agency of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — the major funding sources for the plan — have determined the project must undergo a federally mandated Environmental Assessment. Authorities had previously determined the project could be exempted from such a comprehensive review, and it was thus awarded a waiver known as a “categorical exclusion,” of CE.
But attorney James Dumont, representing a group of downtown merchants and property owners concerned about the $40 million project, argued the undertaking should not qualify for a categorical exclusion. He made his case in an Oct. 31 letter to VTrans Secretary Chris Cole.
“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. “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.”
Dumont’s argument clearly resonated with VTrans and FHWA officials, who late on Wednesday, Dec. 14, informed Carpenter about the new delay and permitting requirements for the rail bridges project. Carpenter relayed the message to his colleagues in a Thursday morning email, provided to the Addison Independent:
“I want to inform you Jim (Gish) and I received notification yesterday afternoon that FHWA and VTRANS concluded their evaluation of the Dumont letter and made the decision to discard the NEPA Categorical Exclusion and perform an Environmental Assessment (EA),” Carpenter wrote. “Should this process reveal concerns, an Environmental Impact Study will be needed. This was the conclusion of a couple weeks of study and risk management analysis. In the end, potential of a lawsuit requiring a full environmental review, thereby shutting the project down in process, was a risk none of us is willing to accept.”
Carpenter described the project delay as “a minimum of one year, given the EA can not be accomplished in time for required ‘contract one’ winter work to occur this winter.”
“Contract one” consists of the aforementioned preliminary work on the drainage system and temporary access road to the Battell Block.
Dumont, in a Thursday afternoon email, said he had yet to receive confirmation from VTrans on the construction delay.
“We do not have any information about the process that VTrans and FHWA will now undertake, under the governing federal statutes and state statutes that my two letters cited,” Dumont stated. “All I know is what Mr. Carpenter placed in his email that VTrans will now start an environmental assessment.”
Though pleased with the requirement that the project will now have to go through an Environmental Assessment, Dumont was concerned that it required correspondence and numerous public comments for authorities to acknowledge the key review.
“As a practical matter, for the residents of Middlebury and surrounding communities, for everyone who works or shops in downtown Middlebury, and for the many students who study here and whose families visit them here, the cold hard facts are that VTrans dropped the ball on this project several years ago by failing to address extremely important public safety, pollution and business preservation issues,” said Dumont, who hopes officials will now consider a more modest and expeditious bridge replacement project.
Carpenter is suggesting the town take advantage of the delay to tend to some related work, such as an independent engineering assessment of the $40 million plan, to ensure that it is sound. As reported in the Thursday, Dec. 15, edition of the Addison Independent, the town ($5,000) and Middlebury College ($45,000) will jointly commission that independent assessment.
“I suggest we take this time to conduct the independent engineering assessment, to continue refining a downtown needs statement and make efforts to fulfill that, and to further our work on a Middlebury multimodal station,” Carpenter stated in his email. “I believe the state has everything it needs to let the contract for the Environmental Assessment, given they hold the funding authority now.”
In conclusion, Carpenter believes the project — while again delayed — is on the right track.
“We have mitigated the town’s financial and legal risks,” he stated. “We have a project design that vastly improves … town safety. Through this project, we have several collateral wins to the town in undergrounding more utilities, streetscape and Printers Alley improvements, and potentially help with preparing for passenger rail. The one area I’m not so comfortable with is environmental protection along our Otter Creek corridor. This finalizes documentation and analysis of those potential risks and ensures the project will include all necessary risk mitigation measures.”
Cole has told town officials that Jim Gish — Middlebury’s community liaison for the bridge project — will continue in that capacity through the delay period.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].