Community Forum: Successful bridge work is vital

This week’s writer is Brian Carpenter, Chair of the Middlebury selectboard.
Early last year a group of Middlebury citizens and community leaders, concerned about the impact of the rail/bridge project on our downtown, formed a community action group.
Calling themselves Neighbors Together, this group asked, “How can we work together to preserve those values that define Middlebury during this challenging infrastructure initiative?”
I believe that, now more than ever, our community and our state need this kind of commitment to the common good.
As the chair of your selectboard I want to share with you my perspective on the latest developments with this project. As I said at Town Meeting, this project is and will remain the town’s top priority until the work is done.
Why are we doing this project in the first place? There are two important public safety goals.
The first is to replace the seriously deteriorated Main Street and Merchants Row bridges. These were built in 1920 and it’s no surprise that they have reached the end of their useful life. More on this later.
The second goal is the safety of the rail line passing through our downtown. There is standing water or ice on the tracks year round. The rails are misaligned. There is no point in fixing the bridges and “worrying about the rail line later.” The state and federal highway administration are prepared to fix them both. Since there is no way the Town can pay for this essential work without significantly impacting our property taxes and reducing our ability to address other needed local infrastructure concerns, we should take advantage of this opportunity.
Let me share with you what I believe to be some important truths about this project.
One, the updated accelerated bridge project plan that the state presented to the community in November 2016 represents our best opportunity to manage the project’s impact on our downtown business community and on the quality of life in Middlebury.
Two, as many of you have witnessed firsthand, we have the state’s A Team on the project. These are accomplished, highly competent, straight-talking professionals who have gotten to know our town and share our concern for its well-being.
Three, there is no $5 million fix to the bridges. This widely reported figure is for the cost of materials only and includes no cost of construction.
Four, the environmental assessment that is currently underway is a positive development. The state is evaluating and documenting the full range of environmental impacts of the project, from air, water and soil quality to the project’s impacts on our historic buildings and the health of our downtown businesses. The state will share the results of the environmental assessment in May at a public meeting in Middlebury.
Five, the project will bring several important secondary benefits to Middlebury. These include undergrounded electric and telecom utilities at the entrance to Marble Works and elsewhere downtown, new and improved water and sanitary lines, readiness for passenger rail serving New York’s Penn Station, and a revitalized streetscape in the central downtown featuring a much-improved Printers Alley, new green space on the Village Green and new sidewalks on Merchants Row and Main Street. All of this should significantly improve the shopping and dining experience downtown.
Six, apart from public safety there is no more important aspect to this project than protecting our downtown business community. We must all play a role here and I am pleased that the Neighbors Together steering committee will reconvene to help drive this important activity.
Finally, our bridges continue to deteriorate. This is clearly evident by the sidewalk detour on the south side of Main Street bridge and the repairs last week on the north side of Merchants Row bridge. This deterioration represents a safety threat to pedestrians and to the freight trains that pass through town daily.
The state is not prepared to engage in wishful thinking about their ability to keep the bridges open at the expense of the safety of our community and so they have begun to consult with the town about replacing both bridges with temporary bridges as early as this summer.
The town will have significant input on the impacts of these temporary bridges, and we have already made clear to the state the importance of 1) maintaining pedestrian and vehicular access to Marble Works through Printers Alley, 2) maintaining the pedestrian crossing between the National Bank of Middlebury and the Post Office, 3) retaining parking on Merchants Row, and 4) keeping access in and out of the lower Battell Building parking lot open and safe.
As we work through the details with the state, we will arrange a public meeting to review how this will all work.
I would encourage you to continue to share your ideas and suggestions for the project with the selectboard and with our community liaison Jim Gish. The state has funded Jim’s position for the duration of the project and his weekly meetings in Montpelier advocating for the town are an important part of this project.
In the meantime, I look forward to the day when we can look around at the completed project while boarding the 8 a.m. Ethan Allen Express in Middlebury for New York City’s Penn Station and think about how our community came together during a challenging time and emerged stronger, forged by the fires of adversity.

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