Railway deal helps to solidify Middlebury’s big dig

MIDDLEBURY — Two competing railroads have signed an agreement clearing the way for a freight train detour around downtown Middlebury during the summer of 2020, when a concrete tunnel will be installed in place of the Main Street and Merchants Row overpasses.
The agreement is between Vermont Rail and its competitor, the Genesee & Wyoming — which owns New England Central Railroad. It allows Vermont Rail to detour its trains around Middlebury using New England Central tracks.
Meanwhile, workers are halfway done excavating a new drainage system for the downtown rail bed that borders the Otter Creek, and the finishing touches have been made on a temporary access road connecting Water Street to the Battell Building parking lot.
That’s the latest news from Jim Gish, community liaison for the $72 million downtown Middlebury rail bridges project that began last year with the installation of two temporary spans. Work is expected to conclude in 2021.
Residents and downtown visitors this summer have heard some occasional blasting and seen heavy equipment digging away, primarily at the site of the former Lazarus store building, at the intersection of Main Street and Printer’s Alley.
A tunnel boring machine continues to make what Gish described as “slow and steady progress” in boring the 5-foot-diameter tunnel that will extend around 140 feet from the launch pit’s rock face out to Otter Creek, near the falls. It’s the first of a three-tunnel drainage network scheduled to be completed next spring. Work will soon get under way on the other tunnels slated for Triangle Park, and at a location alongside the rail line in the Marble Works complex.
“We’re at the six-month mark … and we’re roughly at the mid-way point,” Gish said on Tuesday about this latest phase of work for the rail bridges project, which has been dubbed “early work package two.”
“By the time we hit next spring, we’ll have a complete drainage system,” he added.
Gish said work thus far has been on schedule and has successfully skirted major community events this summer, such as the St. Stephen’s Church Peasant Market and the recently concluded Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. He added no one has been injured and no property damage has resulted from the work to date.
Gish believes area residents, merchants and property owners have been understanding, in large part due to what has been an intense effort to forewarn the public about construction disruptions. Gish writes a rail bridges project blog, and sends out regular email updates to a list of around 1,000 recipients. He also credited the Independent with conveying regular news and photos about one of the largest downtown construction projects ever launched by the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
“People feel that if they’re informed, they can be prepared,” Gish said. “Teams have been able to get the job done, and in a way that respects the community.”
He believes the magnitude of the Middlebury project, and the level of concern it has raised among affected property owners, residents and merchants, has drawn attention from officials “at the highest levels of the state.”
Gish praised the Better Middlebury Partnership and the citizens group “Neighbors Together” for developing programs to stimulate commerce in the downtown during construction. The groups most recently collaborated on a “block party” on Main Street last month. Advocates are using social media and special promotions (thanks to state grant money) to let locals and tourists know the town remains open for business.
The project has also prompted the town to do some bigger-picture planning for its downtown, Gish noted. Residents are being asked for their ideas in fashioning a post-construction Triangle Park. And the Middlebury selectboard last month decided to make permanent what had been a temporary one-way traffic scheme on Merchants Row. That one-way traffic pattern had been installed last year to accommodate the temporary bridge.
Looking ahead to next year, Gish said people will notice plenty of construction in the downtown, but most of it won’t be at street level.
“It will be a year of excavating in the rail corridor,” Gish said. “There will be significant activity up and down the rail corridor.”
Crews will be deepening the rail bed — along a stretch extending roughly from South Pleasant Street into the Marble Works — by around five feet, according to Gish. This will be in large part to ensure the tunnel meets a federally mandated clearance of 21 feet to enable larger rail cars (and eventually passenger train service) through Middlebury.
He promised workers would be well-versed in proper collection and disposal of any soil that’s been contaminated by various toxic materials that have spilled or dripped from trains during decades of travel along the rail line. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has developed a “corrective action plan” specifically for the Middlebury rail bridges project.
There will be noise with the rail bed excavation, Gish acknowledged, though he believes it will be confined to weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
That rail bed excavation will continue into 2020. That summer, Main Street and Merchants Row are slated to be closed for a 10-week period during which the new concrete tunnel will be installed.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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