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Rail bridge repair costs rise; impact report in the works

MIDDLEBURY — The estimated cost of replacing downtown Middlebury’s Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges has grown 30 percent, from $40 million to $52 million, Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials confirmed on Monday. The increase is largely associated with the anticipated expenses of detouring Vermont Rail trains during the height of construction.
Meanwhile, workers with VHB Engineers have begun an Environmental Assessment of the rail bridges project site to explore potential impacts of bridge construction on wildlife, water/air quality and other natural resources in the downtown area.
The Environmental Assessment process is expected to result in a final draft report this coming June that will be reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). If the report raises substantial environmental red flags, the FHWA could require the $52 million project to undergo a more complex Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, review that could delay construction for “several years,” according to Jeff Nelson, Environmental Services Director for VHB.
“It depends on the nature of issues that get raised and how they have to be addressed,” Nelson said of the duration of the EIS process, which varies from project to project.
Replacement of Middlebury’s two, 97-year-old rail spans has been in the works for more than a decade. The project — originally slated to get under way in 2013 — calls for replacing the two deteriorating bridges with a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel to be made up of 100 pieces of pre-cast concrete. Work will encompass a total of 3,500 feet of the rail line and will include a drainage system that will result in the undergrounding of various utilities near Printer’s Alley.
Then-Vermont Transportation Secretary Chris Cole agreed to subject the bridges project to an Environmental Assessment late last year, at the urging of some downtown property owners who had voiced concerns about the potential for water, air and soil contamination. Those property owners also urged local, state and federal authorities to scrap the tunnel plan and simply replace the two bridges at their current height.
But VTrans and the FHWA — which are paying for the vast majority of the project — want the new bridges to afford more vertical clearance to eventually accommodate double-stack rail cars. That means excavating the rail bed.
Nelson and VHB project Manager Aaron Guyette met with the Middlebury selectboard on Monday to talk about how the Environmental Assessment will unfold.
Those performing the study are now evaluating the various resources that can be found in the project area. They will specifically evaluate wetlands, groundwater, wildlife, threatened or endangered species, air quality, historical assets and soils, to mention a few. They will also determine how the project might affect those resources, as well as traffic and noise.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Nelson and Guyette said an initial Environmental Assessment draft report should be completed by this April. This will trigger a 30-day public review and comment period, followed by a public hearing in May. It will culminate in the FHWA issuing its final determination in May to either green-light the project or submit it for EIS review, according to VHB officials.
If there is a finding of “no significant impact” by regulators, the project could advance to construction in 2018, with the removal and replacement of the bridges in 2020 — year three of the four-year project.
Guyette said an independent cost estimator recently validated VTrans’ estimate of $40 million to build the project. But he noted VTrans is now estimating another $12 million will be needed to detour trains during what officials called “extended work windows in years two and three” of the four-year project.
Original plans called for a portion of the railroad track in downtown Middlebury to be disassembled and reassembled each day to ensure Vermont Rail’s freight traffic proceeds uninterrupted.
But last year, VTrans encouraged Vermont Rail and its competitor, the Genesee & Wyoming — which owns New England Central Railroad — to forge a pact that would allow Vermont Rail to detour around Middlebury using a different corridor.
“At this point, Vermont Rail, the Genesee & Wyoming and the Vermont Agency of Transportation are still engaged in discussion,” said Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project. “My understanding is that no agreement would be finalized until the Environmental Assessment is completed and the FHWA has made a determination on the results of the (assessment).”
According to the latest information from VTrans, the additional $12 million would pay for related rail infrastructure improvements and reimbursement to the railroads for the extra costs they would incur through the detour.
Meanwhile, the two downtown rail bridges continue to deteriorate. Workers last week patched a new hole in the sidewalk portion of the Merchants Road bridge, with a more substantial, temporary fix planned for next week (see related story).
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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