Letter to the editor: Bridge project is the best possible

To my Fellow Citizens:
Middlebury is my home. I grew up here. My wife and I were married here, and we chose to return and pursue our professional careers here. My son and daughter were born and have grown up here.
I run Champlain Valley Equipment, the business my father started. We employ 31 people at our Exchange Street office and another 85 people at four other locations around the state. I served as assistant adjutant general of the Vermont Army National Guard and worked to support our state’s emergency response needs for 22 years.
I have deep affection for this town and our state.
In 2014 and again in 2017, you elected me to the Middlebury selectboard. My colleagues elected me to serve as selectboard chair in 2016.
Throughout my life, I’ve placed a high value on honesty and accountability and I’ve demanded the same of others.
The campaign to discredit the state of Vermont’s plan to restore our downtown bridges and rail line — and to discredit the work of the selectboard — concerns me. We’ve seen this before with Cross Street Bridge and with the new town offices, both of which are serving the community well.
I believe you deserve accurate information and the opportunity to make a realistic assessment of the downtown bridge and rail project based on the facts.
I disagree with any characterization of this project as “Pollyannaish.” There is ample evidence that town and state leadership have heard our concerns and made significant adjustments to accommodate our needs and to mitigate risks to our town and our businesses. Today, we are working with community organizations and the state to develop practical plans to support, not just our downtown businesses, but the entire business community of Middlebury, as well as our important cultural and religious organizations. That support is critical to seeing us through the 10-week period in summer 2020 during which Main Street and Merchants Row will be closed. It won’t be easy but it can be done.
Also, the claim of a $12 million payoff to Vermont Railway for loss of business as a result of this project is inaccurate. The truth is that $12 million is the cost of meeting our demand that the bridges and the rail line be replaced in one construction season. To make this happen, the state of Vermont and the Federal Highway Administration will invest $12 million in new rail infrastructure statewide, as well as in equipment and crews, so that Vermont Rail can detour its daily trains 128 miles up the eastern side of the state while our downtown bridges are replaced during 10 weeks in summer 2020. None of this investment will go to Vermont Rail to offset potential lost business.
Finally, to label our community liaison, Jim Gish, a PR agent of the state is an ill-deserved slap. Jim represents the selectboard and the town. His efforts have been key in furthering the town’s interests. For the selectboard, he negotiated the three-week construction time-out this past summer so that we could hold Festival on-the-Green, the Peasant Market, and the Lions Club auction on the village green. He helped ensure that Printer’s Alley will remain open to pedestrians for the next three years. He pushed the undergrounding of utilities in Printer’s Alley and the upgrading of sidewalks downtown. And he pressed the state for a $75,000 investment in promoting our downtown in 2018; a grant we should be receiving shortly. All the while he’s worked steadfastly to ensure easy access to information for our community.
When I joined the selectboard in 2014, the downtown bridge and rail project was being managed by the town and was tracking to start in 2017 with plans that included replacement of the rail track daily. This was a three- to four-year project of 20-hour workdays and significant disruption to our community. The thought of four years of street-level construction seemed unfathomable. We were managers holding overall project liability for a highly unpopular project design.
Fast forward to the present day:
1. While we remain partners, the state is now managing the project, thereby assuming overall legal and fiscal responsibility.
2. We successfully pressed our demand to restrict major downtown street-level disruption to one project year. With support from the state and Vermont Railway, we were granted an accelerated bridge project similar to the East Middlebury Route 125 Sand Hill Bridge. With support from the state, Vermont Rail will detour rail traffic for 10 weeks in summer 2020 to allow this to occur.
3. Construction during the two-year lead-up to summer 2020 will be mostly normal workweeks, allowing those residing downtown better living conditions and causing less impact on our businesses and cultural and religious institutions nearby.
4. As part of the project, utilities will be undergrounded in Printer’s Alley and Merchants Row, cleaning up our downtown streetscape and improving reliability.
5. VTrans supported our request for a fulltime project liaison (Jim Gish) to enhance communications and public outreach.
6. VTrans agreed to invest six months in conducting a higher-level environmental assessment to provide greater opportunity for risk identification, analysis and mitigation.
7. When faced with the need to replace the bridges with temporary structures, VTrans worked to allow the town to establish our least-intrusive timing.
8. VTrans is planning in 2020 to remove excavated soils via rail, thereby minimizing truck traffic on our roads and contaminated soils handling in the downtown.
I think it’s unattainable to eliminate all risk in these major projects. As I see it, to eliminate some remaining risks is to accept other risks, perhaps that we may be back in the downtown with major construction again soon. For example, not addressing the drainage issue downtown, which has been a concern for many decades, only means that it will continue to be inadequate and to increase risk of track deterioration and future derailments in our downtown.
In considering the future of our downtown, I believe we need to focus on a shared vision. My sense is we need to grow the town to provide long-term stability and help stabilize taxes. We are combatting a shift in demographics, a rise in online shopping convenience, and what feels like an ever more competitive world for discretionary dollars. We are not dismissive of the needs of businesses. We absolutely care for existing establishments in the heart of town. The Better Middlebury Partnership, Neighbors Together, our Chamber, the selectboard and Community Liaison Jim Gish, as well as many other institutions, are embracing ideas to energize our downtown now, laying the groundwork to carry us through the critical 2020 summer construction.
But I would argue that’s not enough. We need to look beyond this project and envision how to sustain energy downtown throughout the years ahead. We have opportunities to work toward driving growth in our downtown with passenger rail, downtown development, possibly a Tax Increment Funded (TIF) parking structure, and other possibilities should we dare dream of change.
When I returned to Middlebury from active Army duty 25 years ago and assumed management responsibilities for my family business, there were five major farm equipment dealerships in Addison County. There are two majors remaining. Those of us who changed and adapted to meet the new market needs were the ones to survive. The world is changing rapidly and we are not insular.
Negativity can be self-fulfilling. I have no doubt that some residents and tourists have shied away from downtown simply because of the glum picture and fear created by some concerned project opponents. Ending this excuse is all the more reason to get this project done and behind us. And I believe that most of you feel the same way. We don’t need another year’s delay to get this done.
So my sense is it’s time to say enough of the negativity. Let’s join together to stabilize and support our town — making the effort to buy locally, walking a block or two during this period of limited parking downtown to support our cherished businesses. While we may all see the world differently, let’s proactively work together to develop a shared vision and plan for the future — for a Middlebury that preserves the best of what we love about our town while looking boldly ahead.
Brian Carpenter
Chair of the Middlebury selectboard

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