Editorial: Bridge delay offers chance to get everything in place

Better safe than sorry. That’s the saying that seems most apt in light of the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s decision last Wednesday to conduct an Environmental Assessment of the Main Street and Merchant Row rail bridges project in downtown Middlebury. The decision, which will delay the project by at least a year, was not taken lightly, but made in the face of a probable lawsuit over potential environmental violations.
There are downsides to the decision. It delays this overbearing project another year and that just causes uncertainly and readjustments in planning among downtown businesses. And with new administrations in place at the state and federal levels, this could jeopardize some funding (or the scope) of the project. It will also, undoubtedly, add some inflationary costs to the project, if not additional expenses to handle environmental concerns.
With the delay the potential upsides were noted by selectboard chairman Brian Carpenter. “While we all understand the need for replacing our downtown bridges and improving the safety of the rail line, I think the decision to undertake an EA is right for Middlebury,” he said in a press release posted on the AOT’s website. “I have faith that our community will make good use of the additional time before construction to ensure that we are all doing everything we can to minimize the impact of construction on our businesses and on the quality of life in our unique community.” He added that the town should “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 multi-modal station.”
What is difficult to parse in this evolving project are both sides of the story. The state and the town committees working diligently on the project for the past few years feel confident in the current plan’s scope and detail. Vocal opponents, while few in number, have some expertise on the matter, have hired an attorney to review relevant law, and have worked effectively with the town to get earlier proposals tossed out in favor of the current plan — which limits the worst of the downtown construction to 10-12 weeks, and which most downtown merchants and businesses appear to favor. Still, these opponents highlight concerns about safety in the event of spills of hazardous material and the environmental impact on the Otter Creek.
Now concerns will focus on the safety of the two bridges and the rail track through the downtown for yet another year. The AOT currently has increased its safety review of the bridges to quarterly and has temporary bridges at the ready if needed. The current status of the railway remains as is, with obvious needs to improve the drainage and track conditions for safety. The community must evaluate the state’s plan to be sure it adequately meets the town’s needs.
The delay will at the very least provide the needed time to double-check any potential shortcomings of the project through a second engineering review, and flush out the other community benefits noted by Carpenter (a needs statement, multi-modal station, and downtown improvements) before construction begins. And, as any builder knows, having all the plans nailed down before the shovel hits the ground make for a smoother project and a better outcome.
Let us hope that is the end result of a project that has the potential to bring much good to the downtown, if done well and with eyes wide open for potential shortfalls.
Angelo S. Lynn

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