MIDDLEBURY — A $40-plus million overhaul of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges spurred a lot of debate, planning and community organizing in 2016, but it all added up to another delay in construction.
The project — originally slated to get under way in 2013 — calls for replacing the two deteriorating, 1920s-era Main Street and Merchants Row bridges over the railroad with a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel. It will be made up of 100 pieces of pre-caste concrete, each weighing around 25 tons. Work will encompass a total of 3,500 feet of the rail line. The plan also calls for a drainage system for the rail bed that will result in the undergrounding of various utilities near Printer’s Alley. The most disruptive construction was pegged for a 10-week period from June to August of 2019, when both Merchants Row and Main Street were to be shut down for quick and intensive project to replace the two spans.
Town officials spent the beginning of the year sparring with state and federal officials about vertical clearance standards for the two bridges. They both currently allow 18 feet, 8 inches of clearance. Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and Federal Highway Administration officials wanted the new bridges to afford 23 feet of vertical clearance, which they argued was keeping with a national standard that would allow for the rail line to eventually accommodate double-stack freight cars.
But town officials and some downtown property owners urged that vertical clearance be placed at 19 feet, arguing such a standard could make for a shorter, less expensive project requiring less excavation of the rail bed.
The state Legislature and Vermont Transportation Board ultimately agreed to a compromise of 21 feet — which will still require the $40 million, four-year fix.
VTrans officials unveiled their proposed project schedule at a Nov. 17 meeting at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, a presentation that included graphics projecting how the work site would look at various phases of construction.
While some downtown merchants, property owners and shoppers voiced support for the plan, a few vowed to fight it — with legal action, if necessary. Edgewater Gallery owner George Dorsey became the face of that opposition, and hired Bristol attorney James Dumont to help make his case.
Dumont submitted a lengthy list of questions about the project to VTrans Secretary Chris Cole this past October. Dumont argued, among other things, that there is no law holding Middlebury to a minimum 21-foot vertical clearance threshold for the bridges, and that the $40 million project should have been subjected to state, local and federal permitting — including an “Environmental Assessment.” The project had previously been granted a “categorical exclusion” from such a comprehensive review.
State and federal officials ultimately agreed in mid-December to subject the plan to an Environmental Assessment, in part out of a desire to avert potential legal action. Officials added the assessment would likely delay the project start for a year or more. Middlebury selectboard members were not happy about the new delay, but said the hiatus would allow for an independent audit of the rail bridges plan to make sure it was sound.
In the meantime, VTrans has vowed to regularly inspect the two rail bridges to make sure they can continue to serve what is at times a busy downtown traffic scene, with heavy vehicles. Officials said they could install temporary bridges within seven days if the two downtown spans are ever deemed unsafe.