Rail bridges project draws criticism: Middlebury economy put into focus

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials converged on Middlebury Thursday to ask local folks their thoughts about a $52 million plan to replace the town’s two crumbling downtown rail bridges.
They got an earful.
Most of it was complaints about the potential economic impacts of a four-year construction process that some local merchants said they’re not sure they’ll be able to survive.
“If I sound a little bit freaked out, it’s because I am,” Vermont Book Shop owner Becky Dayton said during the public hearing at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. “There’s no way around the fact that my revenues will be significantly impacted by this project. As little as 3 to 5 percent reduction could mean immediate layoffs of my staff, and within months, reaching the limits of my credit line. There’s a very real possibility that well before the four years of this proposed action are over, this 68-year-old institution will be lost. That will be terrible for me, and worse for my employees, but mostly, I fear it will trigger a domino effect along Main Street and Merchants Row, leaving Middlebury a ghost town.”
The focus of the public meeting was a 196-page Environmental Assessment, or EA, prepared by VTrans, a document that lists a series of potential steps to address the expected environmental, noise, traffic and other impacts of a massive plan to replace the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a 360-foot tunnel. The EA specifically examined 17 potential categories of impacts within what is a 6.1-acre construction area, much of it involving rail bed that will be lowered and replaced to allow for at least 21 feet of clearance for future train traffic.
Transportation officials and a cadre of consultants spent the first hour of Thursday’s hearing explaining how they assembled the report, which along with the public feedback will be sent to Vermont division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). There it will be reviewed by division administrator Kenneth R. Sikora, who will determine what, if any, additional environmental review of the project will be needed. The FHWA will then decide 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 Impact Statement evaluation that could take a few years.
People have until May 26 to email their written comments to VTrans at [email protected].
Meanwhile, VTrans next month is slated to begin installation of temporary bridges at the Main Street and Merchants Row sites. Those spans will remain in place into 2021, the year in which the project is expected to be finished.
Thursday’s hearing saw a stenographer take down the names and comments of everyone who spoke. People who posed questions were told to expect responses in a future EA draft that will not be subject to rebuttal.
Wayne Symonds, manager of VTrans’ structures division, gave an overview of the project and introduced five different consultants who worked on the traffic, noise, historic resources, hazardous materials, and social/economic impacts categories of the EA report.
Many of the 60-plus audience members were mostly concerned with the social/economic impacts of the project. They said the EA report had failed to adequately reflect, and address, the lost income downtown merchants believe they’ll experience as a result of the noise, dust, detours, loss of up to 100 parking spaces, and other construction disruption.
Nancie Dunn, owner of Sweet Cecily on Main Street, echoed Dayton’s concerns about the impact on retailers, and asked if any grants could be extended to businesses to help them weather the financial storm.
“The likelihood that some of these historic stores in Middlebury would not be here after all these years is extremely high,” Dunn said.
Dunn and others noted that VTrans planners recently added $12 million to the project bottom line to compensate Vermont Rail for the temporary detour of train traffic away from Middlebury during the height of construction on the tracks.
“If (Vermont Rail) is going to be compensated, it’s only fair that we are, too,” Dunn said.
The EA does not recommend direct grants to merchants, but suggests loans. Other mitigation measures suggested in the report include signs directing people to businesses, regular communication on phases of the project, coordination with area businesses and residents to time construction around major community events, muffling heavy equipment to the greatest extent possible, and launching publicity campaigns to draw people downtown.
VTrans consultant Brad Ketterling noted the finished project will feature an expanded town green, new sidewalks and other downtown improvements that will provide long-term benefits to residents and property owners.
But that came as little comfort to those who will have to weather a four-year storm, according to some who spoke on Thursday.
Bruce Hiland is former owner-manager of the Battell Block, the downtown’s anchor business property. He reiterated his belief that the EA report doesn’t make a good case for lowering the rail bed through downtown Middlebury, a task that is adding to the complexity, duration and cost of the project. That excavation is being driven by what project planners say is the need for the bridges to achieve at least 21 feet of vertical clearance, from the current 18, to accommodate taller trains.
Planners have pointed to federal rules as a reason for the increased height, but Hiland noted the project has already been granted one waiver, to lower minimum clearance from an original 23 feet, to the current 21.
“There is not evidence whatsoever for a need for double stack freight traffic in the foreseeable future,” Hiland asserted.
The EA estimates a loss of 100 parking spaces during construction, which Hiland said would translate into a loss of walk-in traffic to downtown businesses. And he argued the “noise, dust and disorder” generated by the rail bridges project will not be confined to simply a 10-week period of aggressive construction in 2020, but rather will be “part of daily life” until work wraps up in 2021.
“Apparently, EA preparers are ignorant of the very thin profit margins of local retail businesses,” Hiland, former president of the Middlebury Business Association, said. “For them, revenue loss directly converts small profits to losses. And the losses are by no means only to business owners. When a retail business has to cut back, jobs are lost.”
Hiland voiced skepticism about the EA report’s suggestion that some of the local merchants’ financial hardship could be offset by purchases from construction workers during the project. He called that suggestion “so naïve as to be laughable.”
“What will they buy?” he asked, then referred to the staple wares in downtown Middlebury. “Fine art? Books? Office supplies? Women’s clothing?
“To sum up, the impact on Middlebury businesses will be, in your language, very significant,” Hiland told assembled VTrans officials and consultants. “To issue a finding of ‘no significant impact’ would require a willful disregard of the inescapable impact of this proposed project on the reality of our community. If that happens, I will be appalled.”
Leaders of local churches also voiced their concerns.
The Rev. Susan McGarry is pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which — along with the Grace Baptist Church — figure to be dramatically affected by the four-year construction project. Grace Baptist Church is at 52 Merchants Row, while St. Stephen’s fronts both Main Street and Merchants Row on the town green.
“The lost parking for us, in particular, is going to be significant and may challenge the viability of those two churches going into the future,” McGarry said.
“We are going to be shut down in access for a long time, and we don’t measure it the same way (as retailers),” she added. “It could be tremendously difficult for us.”
The church had negotiated what McGarry called “a pretty concrete plan” for historic preservation of its building. But she noted the EA report states that such a plan “will be developed.”
“What is going to be developed that hasn’t already been developed?” McGarry asked. “I thought we had already been presented plans going forward.”
New Haven resident George Jaeger said he’s concerned that four-plus years of construction activity could “cast a pall” on Addison County’s shire town.
“This is a town that in very large part lives from tourism and from (Middlebury) College,” Jaeger said. “If I were a tourist and there was a big construction project going on in Middlebury, I wouldn’t particularly want to spend time there.”
Jaeger urged project planners to “go back to the drawing board” to design something less complex and invasive.
“I think this is all a very wonderful bureaucratic defense of a project people have determined is going to happen,” Jaeger said of the EA report. “It is overlooking the fact that it’s going to make a ghost town for several years of the center of our town, because many of these businesses will fail.”
Dayton said the going is already tough for downtown businesses. She said the Vermont Book Shop, like many downtown retailers, operates on a thin profit margin during lucrative times of the year and then has to borrow to survive the slower times.
“As it is every year at this time, I’m in debt,” Dayton said. “Now we face a summer-long construction project (on the temporary bridges), which will reduce foot traffic in the short-term and result in the loss of more than one-third of the desirable parking spaces for our business. That impact is not short-term. We’re talking about four to five years.”
Samuel Shea is president of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that provides technical, legal, and organizing services to a variety of citizens, citizen groups, local governments, and others on environmental issues. The organization is taking an interest in the Middlebury rail bridges project, which Shea believes is too ambitious for the remedy needed.
“This project should be to replace two bridges that are in dire need of work,” Shea said. “The railroad work seems to be an add-on to increase the cost of the project.”
Doug Anderson, executive director of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, challenged Shea’s assertion. Anderson recalled the derailment of a train carrying fuel in downtown Middlebury in 2007, and said the need to modernize the rail track can’t be over-estimated.
“Nothing significant has been done to those tracks in 10 years,” Anderson said. “We have the most unsafe rail line running through any downtown of any community in this state. As a community, we should demand the safest rail line possible going through this town.
He called the replacement of the bridges “the easy part” of the project.
“I risk my life, I think, every day sitting seven feet away from trains going through here at 5 miles an hour, wiggling back and forth,” Anderson said. “I think it endangers the community, I think it endangers our town, it endangers my building, and I think it endangers my life.”
Anderson rejected the notion that Middlebury Village could turn into a “ghost town.”
“I also want to say I think we are under-selling the people of Middlebury,” Anderson said. “They love Becky’s store. They love Nancie’s store. They love Town Hall Theater. I think they are resilient and I think they are going to come to our aid in tough times … I think we will survive it, and any talk about this becoming a ‘ghost town,’ given the people I know who love this community, is absurd.”
A complete copy of the Environmental Assessment report can be found at vtrans.vermont.gov/projects/middlebury.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News

Bernard D. Kimball, 76, of Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Bernard D. Kimball, 76, passed away in Bennington Hospital on Jan. 10, 2023. … (read more)

News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Share this story: