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Letter to the Editor: Middlebury rail project desperately needs fresh look

If Vermont’s Department of Transportation (VTrans) has its way, Middlebury’s historic downtown will experience historic disruption and damage over the next three years. Fifty-two million-plus of your taxpayer dollars will be spent to do this “…if all goes according to plan.”
To avoid this disaster concerned citizens have developed an alternative that meets safety objectives, avoids the damage to our downtown and costs less than one-third as much.
That choice should be a “slam dunk,” right? No.
A core problem is that the very qualities of life here that we treasure — our sense of community and civility — have a dark side. Specifically, conflict avoidance. To wit, no responsible official at the federal, state or local government level appears willing to step outside their personal comfort zone and simply say, “Stop. Take a fresh look at the problem, then objectively analyze the two approaches.”
The VTrans bridge/tunnel project is an example of government at its worst, the product of facile political promises, government ineptitude and bureaucratic momentum. The project emerged from years of VTrans’ failure to perform basic maintenance meeting an opportunity to get “easy money” from the federal government in the aftermath of the 2007-8 Great Financial Crisis. The promise of Washington’s largesse set Vermont officials enthusiastically in pursuit with facile promises of “economic development of the Western corridor.”
VTrans seized on the opportunity to correct their maintenance failures with a grandiose project involving lowering 2/3 mile of railroad track in the center of our town. Overwhelmed by VTrans’ proposal, local officials quickly found themselves in over their heads and confronted with decisions well beyond their skill set.
Now we’re confronted with the VTrans scheme, the result of a slow-motion cascade of bad decisions implacably propelled by the momentum of a state bureaucracy. But no responsible official is ready to stand up. The town doesn’t want to re-open the problem. VTrans claims the Legislature requires their project and the D.C. crowd doesn’t want to mess with state government prerogatives.
The alternative to VTrans’ plan is straightforward and combines innovative engineering and common sense. The core issue is how high new bridges must be, in engineer terms, “vertical clearance.” Passenger service requires no increased clearance and awaits only rail bed and drainage improvements and welded track installation. Freight service requires no increased clearance for the foreseeable future and, like passenger service, needs only rail bed, drainage and track improvements.
VTrans is fixated on increased clearance to meet their imagined future needs, which requires lowering two-thirds mile of track with all the disruption and damage that goes with it. The alternative approach — essentially two Carrara pre-cast concreted structures — is engineered to meet all of today’s needs and facilitates meeting any future needs should they ever arise.
Seems a clear choice, right? If you agree, speak up! Say, “Stop. Take a fresh look at the problem, then objectively analyze the two approaches.”
Bruce Hiland
Middlebury

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