Middlebury officials reject call to replace rail bridges

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury has rejected a local attorney’s call for immediate replacement of the community’s two deteriorating downtown rail bridges, arguing the state owns the spans and is already poised to fix them through a four-year, $52 million project.
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, attorney Peter Langrock sent a letter to the Middlebury selectboard. In the letter he asserts that the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges are insufficient, dangerous and that the town should begin replacing them within “72 hours.”
Chapter 19, section 971 of state statutes give citizens the right to file a “notice of insufficiency” if they feel public infrastructure is failing and needs to be quickly corrected.
Langrock included within his correspondence an estimate — from Middlebury’s J.P. Carrara & Sons — of $5.2 million for replacing the two spans at their present locations using precast concrete.
Current plans call for the two 97-year-old bridges to be replaced beginning later this year with a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel. The work — currently on hold pending an environmental assessment of the project site —  is expected to take parts of four years and will include extensive drainage work and rail bed excavation marked by intervals of detours, dust, noise and artificial lighting.
“The situation is dangerous not only to people having to cross the bridges, but the potential of crumbling concrete falling upon the tracks has the potential for a catastrophic derailment which could destroy the town,” Langrock wrote in his letter.
“My clients believe that the best way to resolve the problem would be for the town to immediately replace the bridges along the lines suggested in the enclosed Carrara estimate.”
Langrock’s letter comes in wake of the recent discovery of a new, one-foot-diameter hole in the sidewalk portion of the Merchants Row rail bridge, next to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Middlebury public works crews last week covered the hole with a small steel plate. Plans now call for a larger, 20-foot-by-18-foot steel plate to be placed over the latest hole as well as previously patched damage on the span. Work is scheduled to begin this Wednesday, March 8, and may extend into Thursday, during which there will be no parking on the Village Green side of Merchants Row.
Adding to local residents’ concerns is that workers recently placed a cement block over a new hole discovered in the Main Street rail bridge on Jan. 30. A state inspection of the spans roughly two months ago deemed the bridges safe for travel, but the newly discovered damage has prompted some selectboard members to publicly question whether the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) should deploy some temporary spans to serve the public in anticipation of the $52 million project.
But Langrock and his clients don’t believe the town should wait that long. They want the town to take immediate action.
“My clients are acting in good faith, out of concern for safety of the community,” Langrock’s letter concludes. “We expect the selectboard has the same views and we would be willing to work with the board as a whole to reach a solution to this very dangerous situation.”
Langrock was out of town and unavailable for comment as the Addison Independent went to press on Friday. His letter did not spell out what — if any — legal action he might take on behalf of his clients if the requested, expedited bridge project does not proceed.
“It is my opinion that the town, within 72 hours, must either deny the allegations in the notice or commence working repairing the highway or bridge,” the letter states.
The town has chosen the former option.
In his March 1 letter of response, selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter states the bridges and their upkeep are the railroad’s responsibility. He added if the railroad fails to make repairs, “the town’s remedy is to petition the (Vermont) Transportation Board for an order compelling the repairs to be made … The statute does not give the town the right to make repairs on its own initiative.
“In sum, Vermont law allocates responsibility for repairing the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges to the owner of the railroad, which is in this case the state of Vermont,” the letter continues. “Because the town has neither the obligation or the right to repair or replace the bridges on its own, (the state statute in question) does not apply, and the town must decline to take the action requested in the notice of insufficiency.”
Vermont Assistant Attorney General John K. Dunleavy also weighed in on the Langrock letter.
Dunleavy, in a March 1 letter to Langrock, said a longstanding lease between the state and Vermont Railway “allocates responsibility for bridges carrying public highways (both state and town) over the railroad to the state.”
In concluding, Dunleavy noted VTrans, Middlebury and Vermont Railway are “already cooperating to advance a federal-aid project to replace the existing grade-separation structures. Meanwhile, VTrans has accelerated its inspection schedule of the existing bridges and is prepared to deploy temporary bridges on short notice should circumstances warrant.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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