Middlebury earns final federal permission for rail bridges fix, Big Dig is on

MIDDLEBURY — The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has determined that a planned $52 million replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges will have “no significant impact” on local residents, wildlife and the environment.
That gives the green light for the project to proceed as scheduled next spring.
FHWA Environmental Program Manager Kenneth Sikora Jr. rendered a “Finding Of No Significant Impact” based on his review of an Environmental Assessment report on the project site spearheaded by the Vermont Agency of Transportation. That document listed a series of potential steps to address the expected environmental, noise, traffic and other impacts of the plan to replace the deteriorating brides over the railroad at Main Street and Merchants Row with a 360-foot tunnel.
The Environmental Assessment specifically examined 17 potential categories of impacts within what is a 6.1-acre construction area, much of it involving the rail bed that will be lowered and replaced to allow for at least 21 feet of clearance for future train traffic.
Middlebury residents in early May packed the Town Hall Theater to comment on a draft of the Environmental Assessment report, with many expressing concerns the document did not adequately address public safety and the hardships the project would impose on historical buildings, the nearby Otter Creek, and downtown merchants. Those storeowners are currently getting a sneak preview of construction disruption with the demolition of the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row bridges and installation of temporary spans at those two locations. That work — triggered by an emergency order this past March from VTrans —  is expected to conclude on Aug. 12.
Meanwhile, Middlebury officials, residents and business leaders have been waiting for FHWA’s verdict on the Environmental Assessment report to get a better idea of when the $52 million, four-year makeover of the bridges and related rail bed could begin.
FHWA officials could have called for a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement evaluation of the project site that could have delayed the project for a few years.
But Sikora — in a series of documents VTrans uploaded onto its website during the afternoon on Tuesday, July 25 — imposed no additional review or delays on the project, 90 percent of which will be underwritten by the feds.
“Based on the analyses of impacts to resources and planned mitigation, FHWA has determined the proposed action will not have any significant impact on the human environment,” Sikora wrote in his summary letter.
“The proposed Middlebury bridge and rail project will result in 0.01 acres of direct wetland impact,” he continued. “The project has been extensively coordinated with local, state and federal agencies and the public. Wetland impacts have been minimized through development of a design that avoids impacts to the extent practical. Because of the minimal wetland impacts, mitigation measures will be limited to the incorporation of best management practices into the project plans. Design refinements and proposed mitigation measures have been, and will continue to be, coordinated with state and federal resources agencies as part of the section 404 permitting process. Based on the above considerations, FHWA has determined there is no practicable alternative to the proposed construction in wetlands and the proposed action includes all practicable measures to minimize harm to wetlands which may result from such use.”
Jim Gish, community liaison for the Middlebury rail bridges project, conveyed Sikora’s decision to the Middlebury selectboard during its Tuesday evening meeting.
“This completes a process that began last September,” Gish noted.
Federal authorities had initially determined the project could be exempted from an Environmental Assessment, and it was thus awarded a waiver known as a “categorical exclusion.”
But attorney James Dumont, representing a group of downtown merchants and property owners concerned about the project, successfully argued in an Oct. 31, 2016, letter to then-Transportation Secretary Chris Cole that a categorical exclusion shouldn’t be granted.
“The FHWA regulation governing Categorical Exclusions prohibit use of CEs where projects involve ‘Construction of temporary access, or the closure of existing road, bridge, or ramps, that would result in major traffic disruptions,’” Dumont wrote to Cole. “No reasonable person would argue that the plans under consideration in 2013 or at present did not and do not involve closure of existing roads and bridges that would result in major traffic disruption.”
VTrans and FHWA officials informed Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter on Dec. 14 that an Environmental Assessment would in fact be required.
Ultimately, it didn’t take very long for Sikora to make his decision on the Environmental Assessment report. Gish said it was on July 12 that VTrans completed its revisions to the report and sent it along to the FHWA. That revised report was not released publicly prior to its delivery to the FHWA.
VTrans project Manager Wayne Symonds told the Independent through an email earlier this month that the Environmental Assessment process “does not include another public distribution of the version sent to FHWA.”
Selectman Nick Artim was pleased to receive Tuesday’s news.
“I think this says a lot about the present design team VTrans put onto (the project),” Artim said. “The fact the FHWA approved it so fast also says a lot.”
So work on Middlebury’s version of the “big dig” — once slated to begin in 2013 — is now on a firm course to launch next spring, with initial work focusing on a rail bed drainage system to be installed at the site of the former Lazarus building, adjacent to Printer’s Alley.
“The project is moving forward,” Gish said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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