Middlebury town officials OK temporary bridges plan

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to demolish the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row bridges over the railroad and replace them with temporary spans by early August.
Both bridges could be closed for almost a week late in July.
This temporary bridges project will begin early this June and will result in the closing of Printer’s Alley to vehicles through what is expected to be the four-year duration of an impending $52 million effort to permanently replace the two downtown spans with a concrete tunnel. That permanent fix is tentatively slated to begin next spring, according to Vermont Agency of Transportation Project Manager Wayne Symonds.
Middlebury officials said they are pleased that after more than three years of delays, they are finally seeing some light at the beginning of the tunnel.
“I think we have a workable solution and we should go forward with it,” selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said.
The temporary bridges plan OK’d by the selectboard on Tuesday is a revised version of a plan officials reviewed in March. That plan called for:
•  The Merchants Row temporary bridge to be around 60 feet long, endowed with one, 14-foot-wide lane allowing one-way traffic eastbound across the span toward South Pleasant Street. It called for a separate pedestrian walkway to be introduced just south of the temporary bridge, and preserved parking access for Battell Block tenants.
• The Main Street two-lane temporary bridge, roughly 50 feet long and 24 feet wide, with a separate pedestrian bridge just north of this temporary span, on the Post Office side of the street. That plan maintained vehicular access to Printer’s Alley from Main Street, but only by a left turn.
Local officials took a shine to that initial plan, but urged VTrans officials to return to the drawing board to solve a few of its shortcomings. For example, the proposal would have resulted in the combined loss of more than 30 parking spaces in the downtown.
So Symonds and his team returned on Tuesday with a new plan that would limit the combined parking losses to 12 spaces, most of them on Main Street. Planners accomplished this by relegating Printers Alley to pedestrian traffic, thereby reducing the number of lost Main Street parking spaces to around seven, instead of the original 23.
“(The revised plan) allows us to maintain the existing centerline of the street, so parking on both sides of the street will operate largely as it always does — except for right where the bridge sits,” Symonds said, referring in part to a handful of lost spots in front of the National Bank of Middlebury.
While the new plan preserves critical parking, temporary closure of Printer’s Alley to vehicles represents a setback for the Marble Works shopping complex and the National Bank of Middlebury. The alley leads to employee parking behind the Main Street bank building, and provides access to Marble Works tenants, merchants and shoppers. All of this traffic will now have to run through what will be the single road leading into the Marble Works for the next four years: Maple Street.
Symonds said Tuesday evening he had not heard any substantial opposition from the Marble Works ownership on the temporary traffic ban for Printer’s Alley. He hopes the Marble Works and bank can come to a mutual agreement to deal with the parking and traffic challenges the project will present.
“There’s an effort right now to get those folks to come to a cooperative agreement for this project, and long-term, to allow each other access,” Symonds said.
Oakley Smith is general partner of the Marble Works property. He noted the inconveniences that will arise from closing Printer’s Alley.
“It’s already hard enough for people to find their way into the Marble Works,” Smith said. “Closing down that alley is going to affect our visibility.”
That said, it is essential for the town to replace the two crumbling bridges, Smith acknowledged. So Marble Works ownership wants to see the bridge project proceed as quickly as possible and for the town to post large signs to let people know the Marble Works is open for business and where the property can be accessed.
“I want (the project) to be fast-tracked,” Smith said. “There’s got to be a way to cut the red tape and to expeditiously get this project done for the residents of the town.”
National Bank of Middlebury President Caroline Carpenter was not available for comment as the Addison Independent went to press.
Meanwhile, VTrans made no significant changes to the original temporary bridge plan for Merchants Row — though the selectboard, at the request of police Chief Tom Hanley, will consider eliminating the current left-hand turn option from Merchants Row onto Main Street. Hanley called the Merchants Row/Main Street intersection one of the most dangerous in town. It has been the scene of two fatalities during the past decade.
“I look at the bridge project as an opportunity to fix one of the worst crosswalks we have,” Hanley said.
Some local residents, merchants and property owners recently received an early look at the revised temporary bridge plans and offered some interesting feedback. For example, some suggested that the Merchants Row bridge be replaced with a pedestrian span, in effect creating two parking lots on either side of the rail line.
Selectboard members panned that proposal on Tuesday.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok, who chairs the town’s Infrastructure Committee, said she’s concerned about how a temporary traffic ban on Merchants Row could affect downtown commerce in the long term.
Selectman Victor Nuovo agreed, adding planners do not need another wrinkle to sort out.
“It seems to me this is a big project; why make it more complex?” he asked.
All eyes will now turn to the work schedule, laid out by Shashok and local project liaison Jim Gish.
Construction will begin in early June with Kubricky Construction preparing for bridge demolition by relocating the Main Street water line, reworking some downtown catch basins, and driving “mini piles” to support the new bridges when they’re installed in 2020. Work is expected to last three or four weeks and will take place in 10-hour workdays, Monday through Friday. Expected impacts will include lane closures, loss of parking, and noise from the pile driving.
Following this prep work, construction will ease up during early July while Festival on-the-Green and related events take place. Major work will begin the weekend of Friday, July 21, with demolition of the Main Street Bridge. The following weekend, the Main Street temporary bridge will be installed and the Merchants Row bridge will be demolished. Then, during the weekend of Aug. 5, the Merchants Row temporary bridge will be installed. A final two weeks of work will involve final paving and striping.
Plans call for Vermont Rail to interrupt its train service through Middlebury during the weekends of July 21 and July 28, during demolition of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges, according to Symonds.
Officials expect 24-hour workdays during the weekend bridge demo and launch phases; other work will take place during normal business hours. VTrans expects there to be a period of up to five days when both bridges are closed.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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