Community Forum: Rail bypass, bike path is the way to go
This week’s writer is Ben Wilson of Middlebury, former president of the Better Middlebury Partnership.
The $52 million plan to construct new rail bridges in downtown Middlebury should be scrapped. The project is fraught with safety, economic, and environmental issues that will devastate Middlebury’s business and tourism community. Furthermore, after a four-year construction debacle VTrans will leave the town with an expensive piece of infrastructure that will not solve key safety and environmental issues.
I have followed the course of this project closely because I served as president of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) from 2012 to 2015. The BMP has worked with the town and VTrans to minimize the project’s impact upon our community. While the BMP must continue in this role, I can no longer stay silent regarding the project’s tremendous flaws. Therefore, before issuing this letter, I resigned from the BMP’s board to avoid undercutting its work and avoid any conflicts of interest. The ideas contained in this letter are my own.
The current incarnation of the project is the epitome of bad government. Instead of strategically envisioning Middlebury’s needs for the next 100 years, and deliberately planning a cost-effective and safe solution, VTrans has lumbered forward with a cascading series of haphazard decisions that has led to unnecessary uncertainty and expense for taxpayers. The project began years ago because the highway bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row needed repair. VTrans then morphed the highway project into a rail project. Then it became bridges, rail, and a tunnel for $18 million. Next, it was bridges, rail, a tunnel, and a massive drainage system emptying directly into Otter Creek for $65 million. Then VTrans lowered the proposed budget to $40 million, before recently pushing the estimate back up to $52 million. What the final price tag will be is anyone’s guess, but we know for sure that VTrans’s utter lack of planning and poor execution has already wasted millions of dollars of Vermont taxpayers’ money.
It should not surprise anyone that VTrans is struggling so badly to design this project. The simple truth is that the existing rail tracks are in a horrible location. Because the tracks run along Otter Creek, drainage will always be an issue. Not only is another storm like Tropical Storm Irene a threat, but the unstable soil along the creek means the foundation of the project must be excessively deep. Further complicating the site is the extremely close proximity of Middlebury’s historic downtown. These issues will lead to a multi-year construction project that will disrupt our downtown, devastate local businesses, and damage our tourism industry.
Furthermore, the location of the tracks ensures that there will be continuing safety and environmental issues no matter what VTrans does. On a daily basis, the railroad ships hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline to Burlington. Even with updated infrastructure, there will always be risks of a catastrophic explosion in the heart of Middlebury. Should a train simply spill gasoline, the massive drainage system proposed by VTrans will deliver the fuel directly into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain. VTrans can engineer the project all it wants, but it will never eliminate these serious safety and environmental risks.
The good news is there is an alternative solution that will give Middlebury the transportation infrastructure it needs for the next 100 years.
First, VTrans should immediately fix the failing highway bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row. We should replace these bridges as economically as possible without wasting money updating the existing rail system. Even if Amtrak service should commence from Burlington to New York in the next few years, its rail cars should be able to fit under our existing highway bridges.
Second, VTrans should expedite planning and construction of an eastern rail bypass around the backside of Chipman Hill. The southern portion of the bypass is already permitted to the Omya quarry so only three or four miles of new track would need to be designed. Based on satellite imagery it appears that a rail line could make it around Chipman Hill to the Exchange Street business district without affecting too many property owners. Obviously, anyone affected by the project would need appropriate compensation, but these costs pale in comparison to the long-term economic harm that the existing plan will inflict upon our community.
This bypass would also help Vermont Railroad. Trains would be able to operate at a higher speed outside of town, and those cars could carry oversized loads that could never fit through the tight bridge abutments of downtown Middlebury. Furthermore, Middlebury could build a new Amtrak train station near Exchange Street, which would create a host of additional economic opportunities in the business district.
The hidden jewel of a rail bypass would be the bike path that would connect East Middlebury with Exchange Street. Paving over the unused rail tracks would give Middlebury a bike corridor that would pass near many of its important businesses and institutions. One could bike from Exchange Street, through the downtown, past Middlebury College, Porter Hospital, the high school, and the new town gym, without crossing a single road. With a pedestrian bridge over Route 7 and a new linking bike path, a child could safely ride from East Middlebury to downtown. Such a bike path would increase property values all along its length and it would serve as another outdoor attraction to draw people to Middlebury.
A rail bypass/bike corridor will likely cost more money on paper than the existing rail project, but this should not deter us from moving forward. The decision we make now will shape Middlebury’s transportation infrastructure from the next hundred years. Taking the long view, the economic, environmental and safety benefits of a bypass/bike corridor make it a far better option than VTrans’s latest creation. Furthermore, given the project’s chaotic history, why should we have any confidence that VTrans will be able to stay on budget?
When this project began years ago, the Middlebury selectboard rightfully attempted to collaborate with VTrans to come up with an effective solution. However, in the intervening years as VTrans has bumbled through this project, the selectboard has shown too much deference to the state. It is time for the selectboard to step up and advocate for a better alternative solution.
Long-term vision has been a hallmark of our community. When the town burned in the late 19th century, civic leaders rebuilt in brick and stone. For over 100 years, we have all been the beneficiaries of that vision and foresight. In that spirit, we need to do the right thing again. We must fix the highway bridges immediately and begin moving forward on a rail bypass/bike path solution. Future generations will thank us.
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