Top 10, No. 7: Rail bridge replacement tears up downtown Middlebury
A $52 million effort to replace Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges isn’t due to begin in earnest until early next spring, but area merchants and residents in June got a sneak peek of the major work to come when the Vermont Agency of Transportation demolished the deteriorating Merchants Row and Main Street spans above the railroad and replaced them with two temporary bridges.
VTrans fast-tracked installation of the temporary spans after issuing an emergency order in March acknowledging “evidence of accelerated deterioration” in the 1920s-era rail bridges.
Workers toiled from roughly mid-June through Aug. 12, with interruptions for July 4 festivities, Festival on the Green, the St. Stephen’s Church Peasant Market, and the Lion’s Club auction and barbeque.
Merchants and passersby watched with interest as the old bridges gave way to temporary spans, slated to stand for another three (or more) years until they are replaced with a pre-cast concrete tunnel.
Work went smoothly, though not without some anticipated inconveniences.
Many coveted parking spaces were lost on both Main Street and Merchants Row — which was made one-way eastbound toward South Pleasant Street. Printer’s Alley, located between the National Bank of Middlebury and the site of the former Lazarus building on Main Street, was closed to vehicles, thus cutting off one vehicular entrance to the Marble Works.
Some downtown merchants noticed little disruption to commerce, while others reported their receipts dipped rather dramatically.
John Melanson, owner of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café at 24 Merchants Row, said he was down around $5,000 this June compared to the same month last year, while Alice Quesnel, manager of the Battell Block, said she had heard little construction-related buzz from tenants in what is the downtown’s largest mixed-use building.
The Better Middlebury Partnership co-organized initiatives to try and minimize hardships for businesses and draw shoppers into the downtown during construction. Efforts included more signs, an information booth on Cannon Park from which volunteers dispensed advice on local parking and shopping options, a special transit bus, and giveaways of “Middlebury Money” for use at affected businesses.
Around 250 people responded to an online survey following the project and a majority indicated they were “satisfied” with the results and thought construction was less onerous on their lives than they had anticipated.
But some downtown residents and property owners continued to oppose the impending $52 million tunnel project and urged state officials to reduce its size and scope.
Middlebury attorney Peter Langrock in March called for the town to replace the two spans within 72 hours, alleging the bridges were insufficient and dangerous. He included in his correspondence to town leaders an estimate — from Middlebury-based J.P. Carrara & Sons — of $5.2 million for replacing the two spans at their present locations and at their present vertical clearance, using precast concrete.
He made his appeal based on Chapter 19, section 971 of state statutes that he said gives citizens the right to file a “notice of insufficiency” if they feel public infrastructure is failing and needs to be quickly corrected.
Town officials rejected Langrock’s request, arguing the bridges and their upkeep are the railroad’s responsibility. Selectboard members added they believed the state statute doesn’t give the town the right to make the bridge repairs on its own initiative.
At year’s end there were still some locals who weren’t happy with the plan to replace the bridges.
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