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Editorial: Constructive criticism is not to be confused with negativity

When opponents criticize an idea, the expected response for proponents is to defend why they think the idea is valid. That’s the give-and-take of debate, with the hoped-for result being an improved outcome.
Throughout much of the two-year debate on the latest downtown “Rail Bridges” project in Middlebury that has been the process — to good effect. Early ideas presented by Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, in which the construction downtown was to be extremely disruptive for three summers, met with public outcry. VTrans re-grouped with a new plan that most members of the Middlebury selectboard endorsed. While some businesses remain opposed, much of the outcry has diminished.
But not all. A few vocal residents persisted in trying to get VTrans to reconsider its decision to create a 21-foot clearance for the bridges, rather than the existing 18-to-19-foot clearance. The difference in construction cost is huge, and the impact on the downtown just as significant. That last-ditch effort was to try to get VTrans to see the shortcomings of that plan, and to recognize other alternatives. That effort was not tilting at windmills, but rather a reasoned and practical appeal.
Fast forward to recent commentaries we have run in this newspaper, including one today by Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter, a recent one by selectboard member Victor Nuovo, and another by Sen. Dick Mazza of the Senate Transportation Committee. Each attempts to reassure Middlebury residents that VTrans’ plan is thorough and going smoothly.
But today’s letter from Carpenter takes a wrong turn by misunderstanding the value of criticism and in mischaracterizing part of the project’s history. For example:
• Not all critics have waged a campaign to discredit VTrans’ current plan or the work of the selectboard. The effort has been to present reasons for VTrans to consider a viable alternative. There was one. A decade ago, in the early incarnations to replace the two crumbling bridges, VTrans had a rough plan, at a fraction of the cost, to replace the two spans over Merchant Row and Main Street without lowering the elevation. That plan and others were discarded once President Obama’s stimulus measures made federal money available and this project mushroomed to $40 million, then $52 million, and now to $70 million. But to the point: the opponents’ criticism was to promote a viable alternative — just as the selectboard and VTrans chose to promote its own plan.
Constructive criticism that focuses on the value of an alternative vision should in no way be construed as negative. Is it critical? Certainly. But that’s how a democracy improves ideas.
• To suggest that VTrans “agreed to invest six months conducting a higher-level environmental assessment” is to forget that a lawsuit alleging inadequate environmental protection was in the offing. Criticism from opponents forced VTrans to do what should have been done initially.
• Similarly, Carpenter’s characterizations conflict with reality of how the temporary bridges came about and how VTrans now plans to address contaminated soils. In both instances, opponents of this project brought those issues to the fore, and only then did VTrans respond. These are hardly points the selectboard or VTrans can claim as accomplishments.
• Carpenter also mischaracterizes the editorial reference to “Pollyannaism.” That reference reflected the state and town’s attitude that “all will be fine in the end.” I appreciate the optimism, but no, it won’t. Talk to a few of the businesses in jeopardy and you’ll discover otherwise. Privately, some of these same town leaders will admit that some businesses might go under. But if that’s the belief don’t pretend to be doing everything possible when that’s not the case. Instead let’s find a way to make the six to 10 downtown businesses most affected held harmless from forces they can’t control.
• As to the $12 million payoff to Vermont Railway, Mr. Carpenter is too quick to embrace VTrans’ spin. There are more ways to be compensated for the projected loss of business than a direct check for that amount. For example, railways are normally liable for track and roadbed maintenance, and part of that $12 million will be used to upgrade tracks along the detour. The money will also buy an extra engine. Are we to imagine the engine will be returned once the project is complete? And the money will also cover the cost of additional crews over the project’s 10 weeks, meaning Vermont Railway doesn’t have to. All of these efforts seem to be ways that VTrans is helping cover the railway’s expenses without paying directly for the loss of business. But such speculation is beside the larger point — VTrans should not be in the business of putting others out of business. When and if an AOT project does cause such harm, exceptions should be made to counter that negative impact. If that has not been the precedent, going forward it should be, and the selectboard should press that point.
•••••••••
Finally, these points do not dwell on negativity. Rather, the attempt to save tens of millions of dollars was well intended and backed by ample common sense. That’s a point that can be validated by asking one question: If the federal government were not paying 95 percent of the cost, would the state be proposing this project? Not on your life. They’d replace the bridges and leave the railway at its current grade.
Contemplate that.
But what’s crucial in this discussion is to understand that criticism is most often motivated by sincere investment and respect for the difficulty of the task at hand.
We have ample admiration for the work public servants do in our communities and throughout state government. And, personally, I have fond friends on the selectboard. I admire and respect much of the work Mr. Carpenter and the board does week-in and week-out. We share personal insights on a regular, and friendly, basis. And that’s the point. The opponents’ perspective is not personal; it is analytical and it should be received in that perspective. We are fortunate that each is motivated by a desire to do what’s best for the town.
What’s clear after last week’s legislative hearing is that the AOT’s vision will prevail; what remains is the effort to help make retailers whole from the harm to come. And from there to tackle the next projects that will build a brighter future for the town and county.
Angelo Lynn

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