Editorial: Seize the moment

Let’s shift focus on the rail bridges project in Middlebury to view it, primarily, from two positive perspectives: how can the town best benefit from the ongoing and upcoming work, and how can we best avoid problems that the work might present?
We say “shift focus” because for the past six months the work has been well underway and there is no fruitful outcome in criticizing the scope of a project that is already set in stone.
So, what’s to be gained going forward?
In today’s update to the rail bridges project (see story on Page 1A), we learn that the two competing railroad companies have worked out an agreement to allow for effective transportation of freight from Vermont Rail (which goes through Middlebury) and its competition, New England Central Railroad, during the 10-week detour that’s required when the tracks will be shut down through Middlebury. We learn that the temporary accessory road from the back of the Battell Building to Water Street is almost completed. And we learn that the drainage system that empties into the Otter Creek will be completed by next spring.
In each development, there are opportunities the town should seek to develop.
First and most obvious is to be able to use the temporary access road from Water Street to behind the Battell Building as a permanent pedestrian walkway to that side of the town’s valuable riverfront (rather than return the roadbed to its natural (weed-strewn and unruly) state. The riverfront along the Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury has long been one of the town’s most underappreciated and under-utilized assets, when it could be its most glorious.
Just imagine both sides of the riverfront from just south of the Cross Street Bridge to the Battell Bridge (or as close to the Battell as you can get without getting wet) with half a dozen park benches on each side amid a manicured lawn, flowers and appropriately sized ornamental trees growing along the shoreline.
Imagine a few points along that section that could also accommodate a picnic table for downtown visitors to enjoy takeout lunch, to sit and discuss films from the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, or for a bag lunch for downtown workers if that is their choice. While railroad rights of way (20-feet from the center of the tracks) are a concern, this idea could be accomplished closer to the Battell Building parking lot on the east side of the river and closer to the Cross Street Bridge on the west side where there is more land.
Imagine, also, a seasonal park in the spit of land that used to accommodate Middlebury’s old icehouse, years ago, when huge ice blocks were cut out of the Otter Creek (just south of the Cross Street Bridge) for refrigeration. It would be a cinch to clean up that area (particularly when the railway tracks are closed for 10 weeks in 2020 and the Water Street road access is still open), weave in some short gravel pathways to create a natural preserve next to the river during the summer and fall (it’s too wet in the spring. (The cost would be extremely low to create as no permanent infrastructure could be placed in what is part of the river’s floodplain — yet provides a natural walking area, and wetland preserve, in the heart of the downtown for 6 months of the year.)
Imagine, too, further development below the Middlebury Falls area that could clean up the Marble Works side of Otter Creek’s bank that is currently strewn with waterlogged trees piled haphazardly atop each other in what is an unsightly mess. The trick would be to improve this area in a way that does not disturb the fish and wildlife habitant along the shoreline, while allowing greater pedestrian use of the natural rocking ledges leading up to the water’s edge just slightly further downstream. Improvements here would greatly enhance what is already a well-used and popular Riverside Park area, creating the jewel of a riverfront park in Middlebury’s downtown. We’ve made progress on that front, but the park is still far short of its potential.
Importantly, road construction has already been put in place to accommodate the rail bridges project, so much of the infrastructure to improve this area is already done. What doesn’t make financial sense is to expect the contractor to take all the road material off the ground, truck it away, and restore the area to its natural state of weeded havoc — all the while missing the practical, and beneficial, option of using that material to improve the waterfront area for pedestrian use. With a little thought, this could be a win-win for the community, the state and the contractor — though current plans are to pay to haul all the material out of there to great expense and no benefit.
Each of these riverfront projects would be one aspect of what should be a long-term goal to develop a walkway and bikeway along the Otter Creek — to the north and south of the downtown — as far as we can imagine and reasonably accomplish. Such river walks are among the prominent signs of towns that have been successful in creating the positive dynamics that attract younger workers and families — and the jobs of tomorrow. In other words, this isn’t about recreation and parks — it’s about creating a positive community culture that will help define the town’s future.    
Outside of the riverfront projects, town officials should work with the state and contractors to do more than “promise” that contaminated materials from the rail bed will be handled according to highest standards applicable. It’s well documented that the soils under the current rail bed contain hazardous wastes. Proper removal is within the realm of state protocol and we have faith the AOT and the contractors will conduct these operations in good measure, but promises are thin measures of compliance. Months before those operations take place, it seems appropriate the state hold a town meeting explaining the process they intend to pursue, protective measures they will take, and then open the floor to questions and concerns.
The best way to counter community angst, as project liaison Jim Gish recently said, is to keep the community informed —and in this case, that should mean by detailed and accountable steps to alleviate what are realistic concerns.
Other opportunities on the horizon include the location of a train station, the revitalization of an enlarged Fountain Park and, on a slightly different topic, thinking anew about what our downtown should become in the next decade.
In change there is also opportunity. Middlebury should not miss the moment.

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