Editorial: Two issues test Middlebury’s future

While action items at Middlebury’s Town Meeting may be as uneventful as any in recent memory — a modest budget, no contested races and no at-large questions to debate — two issues continue to overshadow the town’s future: the status of the downtown rail-bridges project and economic development.
The rail-bridges project is prematurely back in the news because of increased deterioration of the bridges’ substructure, which opened a foot-wide hole in the abutting sidewalk on Merchant Row bridge this past week. That prompted emergency measures by the town to patch the hole, increased inspections by the state’s Agency of Transportation and spurred talk of installing temporary bridges sooner than later. (See story on Page 1A.)
The issue, no doubt, will be discussed at Town Meeting. The town’s conundrum is a lack of good options at this particular moment. Let’s review:
• The $50 million project is currently on hold, pending an environmental assessment. There are numerous points being reviewed, any of which might cause an extended delay of more than a year or two. Even if the environmental assessment is approved this spring-summer and the project were given a green light (a best-case scenario), the four-year project wouldn’t replace the bridges until year three, meaning the existing bridges would remain in use for the next four to six years, depending on when the project gets underway. State inspections currently list the bridges as substandard, calling the condition of the Main Street Bridge as “intolerable.”
• Town officials face a quandary because while they want to push the project forward as quickly as possible, they can’t responsibly do so until the environmental assessment is complete this spring. Furthermore, the state had signed off on allowing the town to employ an engineer to offer a second opinion on the project’s engineering (particularly as it relates to drainage issues) due to the complicated nature of the project, the hazardous wastes carried over the rails, and the consequences of a spill if it happened in the proposed tunnel. Both the second opinion and the environmental assessment would ideally be found in favor of the existing plan before town officials could confidently move forward; if problems are found, it makes it almost impossible for the town to support the project until the shortcomings are fixed — all of which takes time.
• Timing is the problem. The question is straight-forward: Will the bridges’ integrity last long enough to fit into the project’s scheduled replacement or will a faster solution be required? Two options exist for a faster solution: install temporary bridges that the state has set aside for this purpose, or change the scope of the project to simply replace the two bridges with pre-cast concrete spans, and forget any work that would improve the railway. This latter option has been proposed by opponents of the current plan, who say the stripped-down project could be done for an estimated $6 million. That plan, however, is not without its own set of problems, including a roadbed that would partially arch above the sidewalk in front of the bank, not fixing drainage of the railway, nor making the railway compliant for taller freight and passenger cars — all reasons the state AOT has rejected similar plans in the past.) Nor does that plan make any of the auxiliary downtown improvements (reclaiming land on the town green, burying the power lines at the base of Printer’s Alley and behind the Middlebury National Bank building, improving road curbing and the aesthetics in the Main Street-Merchants Row triangle, and it might cost town taxpayers the full $6 million.
Temporary bridge spans, on the other hand, could be employed more immediately, but this adds cost to the project and there is some question that a temporary span may hinder access into the Marble Works Business District for a prolonged period. If the temporary bridges are the best immediate option, a way to provide vehicular access to the Marble Works would be critical, as well as maintaining pedestrian flow on existing sidewalks.
One reason the discussion is crucial at Town Meeting, and in following meetings, is to allow town and state officials to gauge public support for a way forward. Threats of lawsuits from a few opponents have brought current plans to a halt; the state and town need to know if such opposition will persist, or if those residents would work in concert with the town and state ifthe environmental assessment and second opinion were found to be favorable. The will of the public could have an impact on that outcome.
On the issue of economic development, the Middlebury selectboard on Monday decided to end the position of economic development coordinator this coming June. The decision was based on what opponents would call pure economics. Now in its fourth year, the efforts by Jamie Gaucher have not produced the return on investment expected. Metrics had been set from the get-go to determine success, and those goals weren’t met.
That doesn’t mean the effort was futile or a waste of resources, but it reflects a determination by the selectboard that the current direction to growing jobs needs to be retooled. To that end, a new committee has been formed to determine a revised set of goals and how to get there. In that effort, town leaders would be remiss to give up on the pro-active approach the town adopted four years ago for two obvious reasons:
• Like any business, if you are not continually pushing forward, you’ll slide backward. More specifically, if you don’t actively seek to replace the normal churn of businesses and industry in your town, you will likely experience decline. The competition to grow jobs is stiff, and that requires an active advocate promoting the town’s many amenities — and even then it is not a sure thing. The recent loss of 60-plus jobs at Conner Homes is a stark reminder that the stakes are high.
• Town officials also should not forget that Gaucher was hired when the state and nation were still recovering from the Great Recession — a recovery marked by its weak growth. That’s no excuse for having so little success, but it is a reminder that high expectations may sabotage what is otherwise a worthy endeavor. Like any investment, a consistent approach beats dabbling here or there with no patience to wait for long-term gains.
Angelo Lynn

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