Group asks legislators to downsize $52M Middlebury rail bridges plan

MIDDLEBURY — Opponents of a $52 million plan to replace two downtown Middlebury rail bridges are asking legislators and Gov. Phil Scott to postpone the project and support further research into a less costly solution they believe could bring less disruption to Addison County’s shire town.
State officials this week confirmed the House and Senate Transportation Committees will accept public testimony during the coming weeks as they review plans to replace Middlebury’s Main Street and Merchants Row bridges over the railroad with a massive concrete tunnel.
Preliminary work slated to begin this spring includes construction of a temporary road next to the creek to serve the Battell Block parking area and installation of a complex drainage system for the rail tracks.
It’s a project expected to last around three years, with the greatest impacts predicted during a 10-week period in 2020 when Main Street and Merchants Row will both close to traffic for intensive construction.
Replacement of the two 1920s-era bridges has been on the drawing board for almost 20 years. The Vermont Agency of Transportation put planning into high gear around two years ago, advancing the tunnel concept that will, among other things, require lowering the rail bed for roughly two-thirds of a mile. This will allow the bridges to afford 21 feet of vertical clearance to eventually accommodate double-stack freight cars.
Opponents — such as local businessmen George Dorsey and Bruce Hiland — have questioned the 21-foot standard, as well as the premise that double-stack freight cars will ever be used along the rail line through Middlebury. They have been pressing state officials for a “time-out” to explore a cheaper replacement of the bridges at their original vertical clearance of around 18 feet.
“We have come to a point where we should put this in the hands of the Legislature to bring some sense to this,” Hiland said during a recent phone interview.
Interviews with state and local lawmakers indicate critics of the Middlebury tunnel plan will get an opportunity to make their pitch at the Statehouse during the next few weeks. But they added they were unlikely to change course on the current project path, barring some 11th-hour, game changing information.
“The questions they are bringing up are helpful to the process … but I don’t see a benefit in delaying things,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury. “We have temporary bridges and the potential to improve our downtown; we just need to get it done.”
Lawmakers will get an earful from the tunnel opponents, who have already been pleading their case to VTrans engineers and members of the Scott administration.
Dorsey, whose local business interests include the Edgewater Galley locations at 6 Merchants Row and 1 Mill St., outlined his group’s concerns and proposals in a letter he sent to Scott late last year. The group has poured over the tunnel proposal with the help of Matt LaFiandra, who provides engineering and project management services for Dorsey’s business, Edgewood Holdings.
The group has estimated the true costs of the Middlebury rail bridges project at around $98 million. That number is based, in part, on their contention that the current plan doesn’t address such things as:
•  $1.5 million in potential economic losses for merchants during construction.
•  $4.7 million in groundwater and hydrology mitigation.
•  $5.5 million in water treatment and remediation.
•  $2.8 million that critics believe it will cost for the sheet-piling reinforced dike needed to separate the Otter Creek from the adjacent rail corridor.
•  An additional $1 million for traffic detouring.
Opponents are also arguing the $40 million in the budget for construction should actually be $60 million. The current estimate, according to Dorsey, “hasn’t made adequate allowances for the remaining indirect costs of engineering, legal and planning process for the 60-percent complete (design) main project.”
It should be noted the current $52 million project budget includes $12 million related to track improvements, equipment purchases and beefed up train crews that will be needed to divert freight traffic around Middlebury during the heaviest construction.
Dorsey asserts the bridges could be replaced at their current height for $10.1 million.
“The design of this (current) project is neither well planned nor cost estimated,” Dorsey concluded in his letter to Scott. “Now the safety issue has been handled by the temporary bridges and a 15-year window for action has been opened up. I again ask that the project be postponed until final cost and planning is developed to a level that gives you, the Governor of Vermont, the level of clarity and confidence that you and all Vermonters deserve to proceed.”
One of the key issues that has contributed to the complexity of the $52 million Middlebury bridges fix has been how much vertical clearance the new tunnel should allow for current and future freight train cars. VTrans officials have stated the design of the Middlebury rail bridges reflecting a vertical clearance of more than 20 feet is based on standards prescribed by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). That standard is designed to accommodate double-stack freight cars.
The AREMA standard actually called for 23 feet of vertical clearance (which assumed electric trains with overhead pantographs), but Middlebury officials successfully lobbied to the state Legislature to get that lowered to 21 feet.
Critics of the project insist the state of Vermont has the ability to assert its own vertical clearance standards, and want the Legislature to further reduce the clearance to 19 feet for the Middlebury project. This, they believe, would pave the way for a much smaller project at a fraction of the cost.
“We continued to challenge VTrans’ insistence that 21-foot vertical clearance is essential,” Hiland wrote in a Jan. 2 letter to Brittney Wilson, Vermont Secretary of Civil & Military Affairs.
Hiland said he has seen no proof of imminent plans for double-stack freight cars — particularly on the small Vermont Railway line through Middlebury.
“It is unsupported by any factual analysis of Vermont Rail Systems current freight business and depends solely upon nothing more than wishful thinking about economic development possibilities,” Hiland wrote in his letter. “There is no factual analysis of possible businesses let alone their freight requirements … Nonetheless VTrans continues wedded to 21-foot clearance with the accompanying complex track excavation, drainage scheme and construction demands, all of which assure near- and long-term damage to Middlebury and the waste of millions of dollars.”
Both the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges were replaced with temporary spans this past summer. Hiland, Dorsey and former Middlebury Selectwoman Donna Donahue believe the temporary bridges could serve the community nicely during a re-evaluation of the current project and exploration of a new solution.
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, is the longtime chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He said he’s looking forward to hearing testimony on the Middlebury rail bridges plan, adding he’s always open to ideas to make projects more functional and cost-effective.
“I will make sure, before we move ahead, that we take into consideration (opponents’ views) and get caught up on the project,” Mazza said during a phone interview on Monday.
“I’ve spoken with the governor, and he wants to make sure everyone has expressed their views and make sure we’re doing the right thing,” he added. “We certainly want the rail to go through. That’s one of our priorities. But on the other hand, if there are some savings or something we can do, it’s open for discussion. We will have a discussion.”
But Mazza is not keen on any plan revisions that might preclude future use of double-stack cars. He harkened back to a 2007 project that saw a lowering of the New England Central rail line through a tunnel in Bellows Falls, specifically to accommodate double-stack freight cars.
“If you’re going to have rail that’s successful, you’ve got to have all options on the table,” Mazza said. “It would be a concern of mine if we did (the Middlebury project) without double stacking. I don’t know how much freight they carry that would need it, but I think the option should be there.”
Rebbeca Kelley, Scott’s spokesperson, provided the following statement on behalf of the governor: “Governor Scott is always open to listening to all sides of an issue. Six months ago, the Governor instructed the Agency of Transportation to engage with a small group of local business owners, who have a different perspective on the best approach forward, in hopes of seeking resolution. While changes have been made to satisfy their concerns, we recognize consensus wasn’t achieved. The Legislature will be looking at this project next week, including testimony from all interested parties. The administration looks forward to participating and hearing the outcome of that joint meeting to determine what is best for the community and Vermont’s transportation infrastructure.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, confirmed critics of the current rail bridges project asked her to lobby for reducing its scope and timeline. She said she’s met with Middlebury and VTrans officials to get a better understanding of the proposed work and related concerns.
Ayer believes it’s in the town’s best interest to try and make the current plan as sound as possible. Ayer is worried that scrapping the $52 million proposal and starting from scratch could jeopardize a federal commitment to pay 95 percent of the project costs.
“Middlebury residents would need to pay more,” she said of the risk of a substantial reboot or delay.
While transportation officials continue to crunch numbers, Ayer said she’s heard an initial estimate suggesting that lowering the vertical clearance of the bridges to the original 18 feet (as opposed to 21 feet) would only cut $1 million to $1.5 million from the construction costs.
And Ayer added she’s been told the planned drainage system for the rail bed will need to proceed regardless of the vertical clearance threshold ultimately assigned to the bridges.
“As far as I know, (the current plan) seems like the best deal for Middlebury, from a financial standpoint,” Ayer said. “My inclination, unless some new information comes in, is to not ask them to stop (the current plan).”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter has been listening to opponents’ pitches for a smaller project, and he’s looking forward to firmer numbers from VTrans on potential savings. At the same time, he’d like to see construction get under way.
“They’ve had some good ideas, and many of those ideas have helped make the project better,” Carpenter said of critics of the current plan. “But at some point, we need action.”
Donahue hopes state officials take a fresh look at the plan, its cost, and its potential impacts on those who live, shop, dine and run businesses in downtown Middlebury.
“The fact that federal funding is paying 95 percent of project costs does not negate evaluating this project,” she said. “This is not free money. This is still taxpayer money, and if a project can accomplish its primary goals for half the cost and half the duration, why would you not consider that and use monies saved for other projects along the western rail corridor?”
Donahue suggested VTrans perform a cost-benefit analysis on the economic potential of running double-stack freight cars through Middlebury, before insisting on the $52 million project.
“It is demoralizing that the ‘will’ to thoroughly look at this plan is simply not there,” she said.
The House and Senate Transportation committees are holding a joint hearing next Thursday, Jan. 18, from 9-11 a.m. in Room 10 at the Statehouse. It is expected the rail bridges project will be reviewed for one last time at this meeting.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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