Community Forum: Lawmakers back railroad bridges plan in Middlebury

This week’s writers are Sen. Dick Mazza (D–Grand Isle) and Rep. Patrick Brennan (R–Colchester); they are chairmen of the Senate and House Transportation Committees, respectively.
On Thursday, Jan. 18, the House and Senate Transportation Committees held a public hearing at the Statehouse on the plan to rebuild Middlebury’s downtown bridges and rail corridor.
All five Senators that form the Senate Transportation Committee attended the hearing as did all of the 11 Representatives who serve on the House Transportation Committee.
We understand how vitally important Middlebury is to its citizens and to the economic wellbeing of Addison County and, indeed, the State of Vermont.
We also understand that the townspeople of Middlebury will have to bear the brunt of the downtown construction, as have the citizens of Barre City, St. Johnsbury, Waterbury, Danville, and other towns across our state when aging, unsafe infrastructure needs to be replaced.
One of the purposes of our public hearing was to get an update from the Agency of Transportation on what the state regards as one of its highest-priority projects.
Chief Engineer Wayne Symonds, Rail Section Chief Dan Delabruere, and Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn summarized how they are managing the complexities of this project and their impact on the buildings, environment, businesses, and people of Middlebury.
We also wanted to hear from representatives of Middlebury’s town government. Selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter and Community Liaison Jim Gish spoke to the efforts of the many organizations and individuals in Middlebury who are working with town leaders and the Agency of Transportation to prepare for the project’s impact on their community. During 2017, Middlebury’s Community Liaison organized some 70 meetings with downtown stakeholders to keep them fully informed about project developments and to provide them with a forum for expressing their concerns about the project directly to the VTrans project team.
A group of concerned citizens in Middlebury has been vocal with concerns about the proposed project and asking for a delay in construction to evaluate alternative plans. It was important that we hear these concerns directly. The testimony from George Jaeger and Max Kraus was appreciated in addition to others’ concerns who presented written testimony.
Following the public hearing, a poll of Committee members showed unanimous support for moving forward with the project presented to us by the Agency of Transportation. We have met with the Addison County legislative team and know that they support the project, as does the Middlebury selectboard and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
We think it’s important to invest in the capacity of rail freight on the western corridor of Vermont in order to drive economic development and reduce truck traffic on our state highways. We support the proposed 21-foot clearance so that the western corridor rail line can handle all manner of freight well into the future. Constructing this project on the proposed schedule will allow Amtrak to launch its service in 2022 between Burlington and Rutland and ultimately New York City with a station in Middlebury.
We trust our state engineers, environmental scientists, and administrators to develop the right plans for excavating, transporting and storing contaminated waste from the rail corridor and for designing a project that will improve, not degrade, the quality of the environment in Middlebury.
And we trust the Town of Middlebury and the State of Vermont to protect Middlebury’s downtown community, from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Battell Block to Town Hall Theater and the retail stores that line Main Street and Merchants Row. We understand that plans are underway to make good on that promise with grants and other sources of funding and we fully support that initiative.
We know this is not going to be easy. There is legitimate concern that businesses and livelihoods will be threatened. But we have faith in the Agency of Transportation to design and deliver a project that can minimize the harm. And we have faith in the citizens of Middlebury and their town leaders who are working for the betterment of their community. 

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