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Editorial: Middlebury bridges project: the pain ahead deserves study now

If you are a Middlebury area resident, do you have questions about the proposed Middlebury rail bridges project?
Do you understand the timeline over the next four years of proposed construction? Do you realize the town will have temporary metal bridges spanning both gaps for the next three years and maybe longer? Do you know that vehicular access to the Marble Works Business District via Printer’s Alley will be closed during those three years, and potentially longer? Did you know the town could be on the hook for expenses connected to rebuilding downtown sidewalks from Bakery Lane on Main Street to Pleasant Street and from the top of Merchants Row at the Town Hall Theater to Main?
If any of those questions come as a surprise or have been on your mind, attend the two-hour open house session on the project this Thursday, May 11, between 4-6 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater. This is an opportunity to talk one-on-one with project supervisors and town leaders about the four-year, $52 million project. It also precedes a public hearing on the project’s environmental assessment report that begins at 7 p.m. at the THT.
To help readers get up to speed on the project, we publish a two-page spread in today’s paper (see pages 28-29 of the print edition or click this link to see it online) outlining the cost history, benefits to the town, some of the project’s weaknesses and the many changes made along the way. We’ll also compile several of the stories written by John Flowers over the past several months and put them all in a package online at addisonindependent.com, for those who want to delve further into the details.
Here are a few items that residents might want to note:
• When analyzing costs, it’s difficult for the average citizen to know if $52 million for a project of this scope is hugely expensive, or in the ballpark. So we asked for comparable recent projects. Here are three: the Crown Point Bridge spanning Lake Champlain cost $78 million and was completed between 2009-2011; Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge cost $16 million and was completed within a year, 2009-2010; the Sand Hill Bridge in East Middlebury (2012-2014) cost $2.6 million.
• The environmental assessment report tackles critics’ concerns over the proposed pooling and dumping of drainage water into the Otter Creek, as well as the issue of contaminated soils, along with too many other points to mention here — all in a 196-page report. The public hearing at 7 p.m. will solicit public comment on the report. Even without reading the report, residents will learn about the most controversial issues by going to listen.
• The safety of the deteriorating bridges had been an issue, but will be resolved by ripping out the two bridges this late July or early August. The temporary spans, however, aren’t that attractive and they will be in the middle of the downtown for the next three years at the very least. Photos of similar spans should be available for the public to see.
• While replacement of the bridges will force the closure of Main Street and Merchants Row for just 10 weeks during the summer of 2020, construction staging in the area of Triangle Park will be a near-constant presence for much of three years.
• While the state project will pay for sidewalk replacement on Main Street and Merchants Row in areas immediately adjacent to the construction area, other sections of the sidewalk will be financed outside of the project’s budget; that means the town will seek state grants and other revenue sources, but that Middlebury residents may be chipping in as well.
• Finally, just how much would an easterly rail bypass cost? We couldn’t get a good answer in time for today’s issue, but perhaps someone at Thursday’s meeting will be able to give us a ballpark estimate. The easterly bypass is one of the few alternatives to the rail bridges proposal, but without estimated costs and a timeline, it’s impossible to know how viable that option is.
Attend, be informed and be involved if you have concerns. This is a major, long-term project that will dominate daily life in downtown Middlebury for the next four years. The difficulties that lie ahead will be better tolerated for those who know what’s coming and who feel their voices were held.
Angelo Lynn
To see the Environmental Assessment, click here.
To see the Maps that go with the Environmental Assessment, click here.
To see the Appendixes that go with the Environmental Assessment, click here.

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