Editorial: Bridge project jumps the gun ahead of Environmental Assessment

“Here we go!” That was the kick-off to Jim Gish’s blog heralding the first phase of what could be a four-year — or seven or more — process to replace the two bridges over the railway in downtown Middlebury. It’s four years if all goes according to plan. It could be seven, or eight or more, if the project has to undergo further review of its environmental impact. Whether the project will need further review won’t be known for another month or so.
Which brings up a key point: Why put the temporary bridges in, if we don’t know if the state project is viable? If the project needs more review, does the town really want to have temporary bridges in place for a total of 7-8 years? 
Gish, who has been the town’s liaison with the Vermont AOT on this project, has brushed aside such speculation with the confidence of a seer. It will meet the EIS test, he has assured us in the past, making it smart to get a head start on installation of the temporary bridges as soon as possible.
But if he’s wrong, let’s not forget those bridges will eat up several parking spaces downtown, curb the width of the roadway, and block vehicular access from Main Street to the Marble Works Business District — home to more than 20 downtown businesses — and uglify the downtown for as long as they are up. It’s bad enough if it’s four years; it would be almost a crime if three or more years were tacked on.  
Instead, let’s hold off on putting in the temporary bridges and give the environmental assessment inspector another month to hand down his decision. If everything is fine and the project gets the go-ahead, then proceed. But if it doesn’t, is the selectboard suggesting that it’s fine to inconvenience the downtown for the next seven-to-eight years with those temporary bridges?
A better solution, is to have a Plan B: that is, replace the current bridges with a pre-cast concrete span bridge (similar to the Cross Street Bridge); leave the current height of the railway as it is; but redo the railway bed and add new rails. This could be done in one construction season with minimum disruption to the town, and it wouldn’t harm — or even slow down — any currently planned rail traffic. 
After all, the added height for the railway clearance — from its current 18-plus feet to 21 feet — is for the future. The 100-year plan. It’s likely it won’t be needed in the next decade. Maybe not even in the next 20 years. By then, surely, someone can figure out how to lower the tracks under the existing bridges without causing much inconvenience. 
The downside of that scenario is that the town would not reclaim land on the Green between the Triangle Fountain and St. Stephen’s Episcopalian Church; nor would the power lines likely be buried behind the National Bank building to the Fire Station. 
The upside is that Middlebury’s downtown wouldn’t be torn up for four or more years. We wouldn’t lose the businesses that have already said they likely won’t make it through the four-year drought. And if the environmental assessment requires further review, we wouldn’t lose the charm of Main Street’s clean lines and the quaintness of Merchant’s Row for the next seven to eight years. 
Why are we suddenly in a mad dash to replace these bridges? Yes, we know the bridges need replacing. We’ve been telling the state AOT this for the past several years. But as the AOT had kept telling the town, the bridges are structurally sound. Concrete chunks pose an inconvenience to the railway, but the bridges are not going to collapse — and certainly they can last another month or so until the necessary information is known. 
To act before knowing such vital information only makes sense if the state’s goal is to lock this project into a process that can’t be easily undone; therefore silencing opponents. But that’s not smart policy, and the selectboard should say so publicly; then demand a reassessment of the plan if the project is delayed for multiple years while more information is gathered to meet state requirements. 
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To do anything less puts the downtown in lockdown for too many years, and that should be untenable for everyone. 
Angelo S. Lynn

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