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Letter to the editor: Bridges proposal warrants review

The first grant agreement between the Town of Middlebury and VTrans on the Middlebury Rail Project WCRS-23 gave an illusion of mutual control over the project that was simply that — an illusion. Worse, it placed great financial liability on the Town. When the local project management team asked that the agreement be renegotiated, we did so to mitigate financial liability, not to create a document that repudiates the Town’s responsibilities vis-a-vis this project.
The reality is we have never had the authority to control this project. What we have had is the opportunity to give our opinion on VTrans plans and to offer input on how the plans are executed (things like work hours). From the beginning this has been a rail project that includes two state owned bridges whose height are not to the liking of Vermont Rail, the Rail Council and the AOT. I have never heard a compelling argument for the investment of what will surely be more than 50 million dollars of tax payer money, my money and yours, for this project.
The rail safety issues relating to drainage problems, track alignment and updating the track to continuous weld track have never been questioned. We all agree we want passenger rail along the western corridor, but we should closely examine the costs and the return on investment (ROI). Once these basic safety improvements are made, passenger trains could navigate the corridor. It should be remembered that we had passenger rail, and it was discontinued because it was not cost effective. It would be nice to know what kind of commitment Amtrak will make in the face of millions of dollars of investment.
Another aspect of this project has been about Categorical Exclusion, and this has now been addressed by the State. Because you can do something (like use Categorical Exclusion to ignore environmental concerns) does not mean you should do something. There are many serious environmental issues involved in this project.
The comment by Secretary Cole that it is unfortunate that the threat of a lawsuit has caused this postponement is misleading and thoughtless. We, the Town, and the State should do the right thing. We have an obligation to abide by the environmental regulations that protect our lands and waterways. Categorical Exclusion is an archaic, irresponsible rule. The opportunity to conduct a proper environmental assessment is “not unfortunate” but rather appropriate and warranted.
Here is the most important consideration; our bridges should be replaced now. Their repair is long overdue. If safety is “the” prime consideration, the bridges warrant immediate attention.  The bridges can be replaced in well under a year for something in the vicinity of $6 million dollars. It needs to be done now, not in 2020. Rail safety improvements can be made when the environmental assessment is complete. Subsequently, if and when there is enough evidence of economic value to spend millions and millions of dollars to increase the height, that issue can be undertaken as a separate project.
If recent elections tell us anything, it is that people are angry about things being done the same old way, about not being heard. My personal belief is that the State should go back to the beginning and look hard at the goals of this project, how best to achieve them and to remember that the Rail considerations are only one aspect of this project. The social and economic well-being of the Middlebury community is also at stake.
It seems insensitive that Secretary Cole would say, “This is this generation’s turn, in Middlebury, to sacrifice for the future generation.” If we are asked to endure four years of serious disruption in our lives, it should be for well-articulated, well-substantiated, measurable benefits. Asking the State to take a hard look does not seem unreasonable by comparison.
Donna Donahue
Middlebury

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