Middlebury plans fix for holes in downtown bridges

MIDDLEBURY — Downtown shoppers and merchants will experience roughly two days of traffic-related inconvenience next week when work crews install a large steel plate over a deteriorating section of the deck of the Merchants Row rail bridge, bordering the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church property.
Matt Cram, head of the Middlebury Public Works highway division, explained the 20-foot-by-18-foot steel plate will cover previous patchwork and a new, one-foot-diameter hole reported last Friday in the sidewalk portion of the bridge, next to the church.
The work — tentatively scheduled to begin next Tuesday, March 7 — will temporarily relegate Merchants Row traffic to one lane and block off several spaces on the north side of the road, according to Cram. Addison County Transit Resources bus traffic is expected to continue unimpeded, officials said.
Meanwhile, state and local officials continue to evaluate temporary safety upgrades for the two deteriorating rail bridges, which are due to be replaced as part of a project that will envelope downtown Middlebury for parts of four years. That project was scheduled to get under way this year, but the start was pushed back to next year after Vermont Agency of Transportation officials were asked by some downtown property owners to submit the plan for an Environmental Assessment (see related story on Page 1A). That assessment is expected to take around a year — and could lead to a lengthier review, if investigators find issues within the project footprint that could trigger a more complex Environmental Impact Statement.
For now, VTrans and town leaders want to make sure the two downtown rail bridges remain safe enough for pedestrians and the hundreds of vehicles that use the 97-year-old spans every day.
“The bridge inspections still show the bridges are sound,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said, though he added officials should take steps to make sure the bridges pose no potential hazards to those who use them.
But a Jan. 30, 2016, VTrans inspection report on the Merchants Row bridge gave it a “poor” rating for its superstructure, a “serious” rating for its deck, and a “satisfactory” rating for its substructure. Inspectors appraised it as not meeting current federal standards for its railings, transitions and guardrail. The bridge met minimum “tolerable criteria” in its structural evaluation, according to the inspection.
Inspectors gave the Main Street rail bridge similar grades, though they gave it a structural evaluation of “Intolerable, replacement needed.”
VTrans officials have set aside temporary bridges that they said could be installed within days if the Main Street and/or Merchants Row bridges prove unsafe for travel.
Some local officials are wondering if that call will need to be made very soon.
“I’m just not sure when my comfort level to ask for those (temporary bridges) is, versus your comfort level saying we really ought to start looking at those,” Selectwoman Susan Shashok told project engineers at Monday’s selectboard meeting. “I’m just wondering … how many more chunks need to fall before we have that conversation?”
In the meantime, officials are trying to make do with less complex remedies.
Workers recently placed a cement block over a new hole discovered in the Main Street rail bridge on Jan. 30.
The large steel plate to be installed in Merchants Row is one inch thick, according to Cram. Work crews will remove the old patches and lay the steel plate over the worst section of the north side of the busy street.
Cram voiced concern about the latest setbacks for the two spans.
“This is a huge deal,” he said. “Our biggest concern is that this needs to be fixed as soon as possible.”
He noted the annual Middlebury Chili Fest is March 11, when hundreds of people will be milling on and around the two spans.
Aaron Guyette, project manager for VHB engineers, acknowledged the new deterioration in the bridges is resulting in concrete falling from the underside of the spans, to the railroad tracks below. VTrans and railroad officials must occasionally do work below the bridges, Guyette noted.
“VTrans is working right now to evaluate what further steps should be taken to make sure (the bridges) remain safe for the folks on top as well as the folks under the bridges,” Guyette said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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