Middlebury project includes $12M investment in rail

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials said this week that a $12 million addition to the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project is related to track improvements, equipment purchases and beefed up train crews that will be needed to ensure freight traffic can continue along the state’s western corridor during what will soon be abbreviated — and at times suspended — train traffic through Addison County’s shire town.
The Addison Independent on Monday asked VTrans Structures Division Manager Wayne Symonds to clarify the intended use of the $12 million that officials recently added to what had been a $40 million plan to replace the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a 360-foot tunnel.
Middlebury residents and merchants have been asking for details about the rail-related budget addendum, theorizing the money might have been added to indemnify Vermont Rail Systems for potential lost business and inconveniences during a massive, four-year project that calls for suspension of freight service through the downtown for 10 weeks during 2020.
While VTrans is still negotiating with both Vermont Rail and New England Central Railway — a rival company on whose route Vermont Rail will have to divert its traffic during the 10-week closure — Symonds shared the main purposes for which the $12 million will be allocated.
“Its not like we are negotiating a lump-sum payment that goes to the railroad for this,” Symonds said.
“Around half” of the $12 million is earmarked for new equipment, infrastructure and personnel costs associated with the 10-week suspension of train service through Middlebury, according to Symonds.
The detour, as described by Aaron P. Guyette of VHB, the lead engineering company for the project, is as follows:
“It essentially starts in Rutland and travels on the Green Mountain railroad (operated by Vermont Rail) to Bellows Falls.  From Bellows Falls the train would travel on the New England Central Railroad (owned and operated by Genesee and Wyoming) to White River Junction, then Essex, and finally to Burlington.” (See map at right.)
Guyette noted the existing Vermont Railway track from Rutland to Burlington is approximately 64 miles long. The total detour length will be 192 miles. Vermont Rail’s cargo will travel 140 miles per trip on New England Central rail line.
During the detour period, Vermont Rail will also need to maintain service to its customers between Rutland and Burlington by providing service from Rutland to Middlebury and from Burlington to Middlebury from each end, according to Guyette.
It means that while trains will continue to haul the freight, it will take longer.
“When we do this detour, it’s going to add one calendar day to the delivery of the primary freight — which is gasoline — up to the Burlington area,” Symonds said. “Now, it’s pretty direct from Whitehall, N.Y., up to Burlington. But because we are adding over 100 miles to the detour, we are adding a day. So we need infrastructure to be able to accommodate twice the number of rail cars in the system.”
That will require, among other things, improving a crossing station in Essex (Vermont), along with rail tracks and switching yards, so that trains can safely pass each other, officials said.
“As you can suspect, it’s kind of complex to move trains from one line to another,” Symonds said. “There are some locations around the state that need to be improved to allow trains to be turned around and stored to accommodate this movement.”
Plus there are the costs to Vermont Rail to keep its business operating via the detour.
“It is going to accommodate the direct cost of additional crews and cars necessary for that extra day of transit, and for the extra manpower it’s going to take to move this freight,” Symonds said.
“Basically, the geometry of the rail line that Vermont Rail has is flatter that the New England Central Rail lines. So it’s going to take more locomotion power to move this freight in this other manner. So the idea is to only reimburse the actual cost, demonstrated by the railroad. This is not meant to be a one-time gift or somehow an additional profit margin they would get for working with us.”
Adding to the logistics is the fact that Vermont Rail and New England Central are competitors. He compared the temporary agreement between the two to “asking a Ford dealership to sell Chevys for 10 weeks, and then turn it back over to the Chevy dealer.”
The other half of the $12 million, according to Symonds, will be used during several as-yet-undefined periods during the four-year construction project when crews working on the tunnel project in Middlebury will remove the track, work for 20 hours, then reinstall the track so Vermont Rail trains can send trains through Middlebury for four hours. Symonds said this pot of money will help guarantee this series of 20-hour work days and keep the project moving as quickly as possible through the 2021 construction season.
Anytime there is a 20-hour work window for construction crews, it will mean Vermont Rail has only four hours to haul freight.
“It means (Vermont Rail) needs to have an extra crew and extra equipment to make that happen,” Symonds said.
That said, Symonds stressed 2019 will not bring 20 hours of noise each day. Some of the time will be spent setting up and de-mobilizing the large drilling rigs that will be used to excavate the rail bed. The 20 hours also has a built-in cushion in case a machine breaks, he added.
Then will come 2020, which will involve a lot more than the 10-week suspension of train traffic through downtown Middlebury, officials said.
“We have work that needs to be done before and after the bridge closures,” Symonds said. “And we are negotiating the possibility that we might have a couple of months in 2021 with (more of) those extended work windows.”
Middlebury residents next month will get a preview of things to come. That’s when crews are slated to begin installation of temporary spans at the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. The 1920s-era bridges will then be demolished.
Next spring, preliminary work will begin on the tunnel project, including drainage upgrades and extension of a temporary access road to the parking area behind the Battell Block.
Symonds acknowledged the rail bridges project will bring some long-term benefits to Vermont Rail and New England Central, which lease rail infrastructure from the state of Vermont.
“It does have a long-term benefit of adding efficiency into the (rail) system, for sure,” Symonds said of the project.
He reiterated there is no money in the $52 million budget for grants for downtown Middlebury merchants whose businesses will be disrupted by the work. He noted efforts by the town of Middlebury and community liaison Jim Gish to help publicize, promote and minimize impacts on local merchants.
“We really tried to do what was asked of us and I think, long-term, the project is absorbing some extra costs to try and get the major impacts to downtown Middlebury centered on those 10 weeks (of the detour in 2020),” Symonds said. “That one season is going to be disruptive, no matter what is done. I think we are going to have some pretty significant impacts for one season in downtown Middlebury.”
Kathleen Ramsay, Middlebury town manager, said she and the selectboard continue to explore ways of helping merchants weather the construction storm. Officials are specifically considering the launch of a revolving loan fund containing federal dollars that have been repaid by its initial beneficiary, the nonprofit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects.
Ramsay said the board will also have a community discussion about potentially giving merchants access to some of Middlebury’s surplus local option tax revenue. That money is now earmarked exclusively for debt service and maintenance of the Cross Street Bridge.
Nancie Dunn, owner of the Sweet Cecily store in downtown Middlebury, said merchants are looking for some financial help to survive the most invasive of the project. She and other storeowners voiced that concern at a May 11 public meeting on the environmental and social impacts parts of the project. They said loans wouldn’t be of much help, given thin profit margins.
“We all helped raise that local option tax revenue, so (tapping some of it for merchants) would be an interesting idea to explore,” Dunn said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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