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Lawmakers review Middlebury rail bridges project, with higher price tag

MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont House and Senate Transportation Committees last week took testimony on the latest plans for replacing Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges, and lawmakers appear content to have the project — now estimated at $71 million — begin as scheduled this spring.
The meeting, held last Thursday at the Vermont Statehouse, featured virtually all of the major players in what has been a multi-year planning effort to replace the 1920s-era Main Street and Merchants Row bridges over the railroad.
Work crews demolished the two spans last summer and replaced them with temporary bridges. They are to be supplanted by a concrete tunnel with a larger, 21-foot vertical clearance that will require excavation of the underlying rail bed and a sophisticated drainage system.
Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials at the hearing confirmed the project cost — most recently placed at $52 million — had mushroomed to $70,925,000. Here’s the specific breakdown of those costs: $2,275,000 for the temporary bridges, $7,850,000 for engineering, $48,800,000 for construction, and $12 million to compensate Vermont Rail for costs (fuel, infrastructure/equipment maintenance and insurance) associated with detouring freight traffic around Middlebury at the height of construction in 2020.
The federal government will be covering 95 percent of the project expenses, with the state covering the most of the rest.
VTrans officials spent around an hour presenting the plan to lawmakers at the Jan. 18 meeting. A Middlebury delegation that included selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter followed with a town presentation expressing confidence in the project and concern about further delay in getting work under way, according to an outline of remarks provided by Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.
Also testifying at the gathering were some opponents of the current plan, who argued the project is too large and could financially crush downtown merchants during the height of construction, when shopper access to some stores will be extremely limited. Opponents have urged a one-year postponement of the plan pending investigation of potential cheaper projects taking less time to build.
Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the downtown rail bridges project, provided the selectboard with an email summary of his thoughts about the meeting with lawmakers. His comments included:
•  “Overall, I would characterize the public hearing as a positive opportunity to engage with the legislators and to tell the story of Middlebury’s partnership with the state and the selectboard’s commitment to our community. Those who oppose the current project spoke respectfully of the work of both VTrans and the selectboard.”
•  “No formal vote was taken at the conclusion of the hearing. The general feeling of those in attendance was that this was a successful meeting.”
Those in attendance at the meeting, according to Gish, included Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn, several local lawmakers, and the senior management team from Vermont Rail.
Middlebury officials provided the following links to testimony delivered at the meeting:
•  Town of Middlebury: tinyurl.com/y9ullh4y.
•  VTrans PowerPoint presentation: tinyurl.com/y89c9hrl.
•  Testimony of Max Krauss, an opponent of the current project: tinyurl.com/yb6y96rb.
The Independent published the written testimony of project opponent Bruce Hiland in this past Thursday’s edition; it can be found here: tinyurl.com/ybe79y5o.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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