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Middlebury residents weigh in on how the temporary bridges are going

MIDDLEBURY — A clear majority of the 250 people who responded to a recent online survey about this past summer’s temporary rail bridges project in downtown Middlebury said they were satisfied with the results and believe the construction impact was less onerous on their lives than they had anticipated.
The 13-question survey was made available to the approximately 800 people who have signed up for the town’s email “alerts” on the $52 million rail bridges project. The project involves replacement of the Merchants Row and Main Street railroad overpasses, a major undertaking expected to last into 2020.
Drainage, a temporary access road to the rear of the Battell Block and utilities relocation work is slated to begin next spring. As a precursor — and as a public safety precaution — crews this past summer demolished to two crumbling 1920s-era spans and replaced them with temporary bridges.
Jim Gish, community liaison and chief spokesman for the rail bridges project, spearheaded the online survey and also authors the bridge construction email alerts. He gave the Middlebury selectboard a general preview of survey results on Oct. 10 and said he would release the findings in daily installments through his email alerts. Gish declined to release that information in its entirety to the media until he had reported the final installment through his email list on Friday, Oct. 20.
A majority of the survey called upon respondents to react — on scales of “excellent” to “good,” or from “satisfied” to “dissatisfied” — to questions related to the lead-up, construction and aftermath of the temporary rail bridges project.
Roughly 80 percent of those responding to the survey were downtown either daily during the summer construction, or at least two to three times a week. Around 74 percent of respondents were Middlebury residents. Sixty-four percent claimed to work in Middlebury and 72 percent reported their travels regularly take them through downtown Middlebury. Also, 62 percent indicated they regularly shop and do business in town.
Here are some key findings:
•  Around 60 percent of the respondents said that the personal impact of this summer’s construction project was either “better than expected” or “somewhat better than expected.”
•  Approximately 80 percent of respondents said they were either very satisfied (130 people) or somewhat satisfied (67 people) with the temporary bridges. Around 8 percent said they were either somewhat dissatisfied (14) or very dissatisfied (6) with the temporary spans.
•  About a third of survey takers said the construction project was pretty much what they expected. Around 10 percent said the construction was, to varying degrees, worse than they expected.
•  An equal number of respondents indicated they were either less confident about the project going forward, or that their expectations remain the same.
•  Approximately one-third of respondents admitted making fewer downtown trips than usual in order to avoid the construction. But the majority indicated they continued to come downtown when they needed to.
•  One out of every 10 respondents said they came downtown more often while work was going on in an effort to show support for the downtown community.
Gish included a variety of comments offered by respondents, including:
– “I was already positive about the project, and feel like this summer’s beginning phase validated that and provided good experience for making the following phases even better.”
– “I am very concerned about the long, long time frame for disruption of travel and easy access to businesses, especially for the elderly and disabled.”
– “The bridges project needs to be done. Too many townspeople in Middlebury (and, perhaps, Vermonters more broadly) will be against any kind of development, any kind of change. This project is necessary.”
– “If there was this level of disruption for just a few weeks, I can’t imagine how downtown and businesses will survive a more extensive shut down.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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