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Environmental assessment outlines RR bridges project’s potential pitfalls

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials, residents, merchants and property owners concerned about upcoming construction disruption in the downtown will be spending a lot of time reading between now and May 11.
And the subject matter, while important, is pretty dry.
They’ll be poring over a recently released 200-page Environmental Assessment report citing potential impacts of a $52 million plan to replace the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a 350-foot-long concrete tunnel that encompasses both bridges. The report also lists a series of potential steps to address the expected environmental, noise, traffic and other impacts of the four-year project.
Downtown Middlebury stakeholders will have a chance to comment on those proposed mitigation steps — and offer some of their own — at a meeting to be held Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater.
There’s a lot riding on the feedback state and federal transportation authorities receive about the Environmental Assessment. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will use the document and accompanying comments to determine whether to allow the rail bridges project to begin on time next spring, or whether construction should again be delayed and submitted to a more rigorous environmental evaluation.
Along with building a tunnel, the project calls for improving track alignment and correcting long-standing drainage deficiencies in the rail corridor, which will require lowering the vertical profile of the track over a distance of 3,550 linear feet, from the Otter Creek Truss Bridge at the southern end of the project to the Elm Street overpass at the northern end.
The Addison Independent solicited comment from Brian Carpenter and Susan Shashok, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Middlebury selectboard. Both town officials said they would withhold comment on the report until they had time to digest it.
By any measure, it’s a big meal.
The Environmental Assessment examines the deterioration of the two 1920s bridges; the more than two-decade planning of their replacement; the myriad construction alternatives and what led to the selection of the “tunnel” concept; and how almost four years of related construction is expected to affect the residents, wildlife, historic buildings, Otter Creek and traffic in downtown Middlebury.
Federal authorities had originally granted the Middlebury rail bridges project a “categorical exclusion” that exempted it from the rigors of an Environmental Assessment. But a group of local property owners successfully lobbied for the review.
Bruce Hiland, a member of that group, also asked for more time to read the report before making public comments.
Here is a brief breakdown of major project impacts discussed in the report and some of the ways state and federal officials propose to address them:
• Wetlands. Officials promised intensive monitoring of affected wetlands during construction, promised “minimal”clearing of woody vegetation, restoration of all areas of temporary disturbance in wetland buffers and the replanting of woody vegetation “where feasible and appropriate.”
• Surface water. During construction, an environmental manager will monitor the discharge water for contaminants such as arsenic and lead, and the adjacent Otter Creek will be monitored for turbidity. Surface water quality “will be protected by the management of storm water runoff using infrastructure designed for the operational phase of the Project.”
Officials also promised an “emergency response plan” will be developed and implemented in coordination with the Middlebury Fire Department to manage any spills of oil or hazardous material that may occur “within close proximity to the storm water system.”
“In the event of a spill along the railroad tracks, to the degree that spilled materials were not collected, this material could flow to the Otter Creek, as is currently the case, the report states. “However… this potential occurrence would be managed through emergency response plans and actions to be developed and implemented by VTrans and Vermont Rail in coordination with the Middlebury Fire Department.”
• Hazardous materials. Soil and other contaminated materials to be disturbed as a result of construction “will be properly handled and/or disposed of” in accordance with state and federal laws, according to the report. An environmental manager will be on-site for “construction observation” during all days when contaminated materials are being handled or disturbed.
• Air quality. The contractor will be responsible for preventing dust and debris from leaving the site or entering the surrounding community during construction. Excavation of potentially contaminated soils will be overseen by a qualified environmental manger.
“Dust generated from earthwork and other construction activities like stockpiled soils will be controlled by spraying with water to mitigate wind erosion on open soil areas,” the study states.
• Noise. Heavy construction vehicles will have their back-up alarms with strobes. Officials also pledged to forewarn downtown residents and merchants about when the most obtrusive noise would occur.
• Social and economic considerations. Officials acknowledged the project would create upheaval for commerce and travel in the downtown — particularly during a 10-week period in 2020 during which Vermont Rail train traffic will be detoured to allow for aggressive construction at the two bridge sites.
Proposed mitigation during this upheaval will include “way finding” signs to businesses; shuttle bus service to and from alternative parking locations; and a public information campaign done in concert with a citizens group called Neighbors Together. The group — made up of town officials, business owners, and community leaders — is developing strategies to promote the downtown and to support local businesses and institutions during construction.
The report also alludes to the possibility of Middlebury extending financial help to affected businesses through a revolving loan fund.
• Wildlife. At least 72 resident and migratory bird species and eight “terrestrial mammal species” can be found in the project area, according to the report.“The loss of bridge habitat represents a permanent, but not a detrimental loss of habitat, as avian and terrestrial wildlife species observed to be frequenting the bridge locations (e.g., rock pigeons) can readily occupy alternative habitats,” the report states.
Also confirmed in the report is the presence of some rare and/or endangered bats in the project area, including the Indiana bat. But the report states the project “is unlikely to adversely affect the Indiana and northern long-eared bats because they will have already been dislodged by installation of the temporary bridges, and there are alternative places for them to roost nearby.
A complete copy of the Environmental Assessment report can be found at vtrans.vermont.gov/projects/middlebury.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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