Middlebury narrows down rail platform sites

MIDDLEBURY — A vast majority of Middlebury residents who’ve weighed in on the siting of a proposed passenger rail platform would prefer to see it placed in one of four areas: the Middle Seymour Street area, in the vicinity of the Marble Works, the former train station building and behind the parking lot of the National Bank of Middlebury on Seymour Street.
That opinion came through loud and clear in a recent survey conducted by the town of Middlebury and its engineering firm, Vanesse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB).
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has offered to pay for a 300-foot-long-by-12-foot-wide passenger rail platform, with minimal covering, to serve riders of an expanded Ethan Allen Express train route that Amtrak is slated to run along the states’ western rail corridor beginning in 2021 or 2022. That route from Rutland to Burlington will include local stops in Middlebury and Vergennes, and the state wants basic amenities in place before the train service begins.
Middlebury and Vergennes will have to pay for any related costs, such as property acquisition, access drives, parking, landscaping, and other passenger amenities at the platform sites.
A local project steering committee and VHB have been working since April to identify potential platform sites, using a list of siting priorities shaped by public input. Those priorities include safety, cost, proximity to downtown and the potential to accommodate more parking and a train station in the future — if the service catches on.
Local planners asked for local feedback at an initial public meeting back in June that produced four leading sites for the passenger rail platform. They followed that up with a meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27, during which they took more citizen feedback and released the results of a survey in which respondents were asked to declare their favorite of the four locations now in contention.
What follows is a brief description of each of the four sites and its ranking among the 523 people who had completed the survey as of last Thursday:
1) Garnering the most votes is the site between Middle Seymour Street and Maple Street, with the platform placed opposite the former Middlebury train station, on the Maple Street side of the tracks. David Saladino, VHB’s director of transportation engineering in Vermont, said 58 percent of the survey respondents listed this site was their top choice.
The site is within easy walking distance of the core downtown and Marble Works. It can also be easily monitored for safety and can accommodate 17 surrounding parking spaces, according to VHB officials.
As an added bonus, Saladino noted the platform and its access would be located completely within the town and railroad right-of-ways, meaning no property acquisition costs. An existing brush line would be cleared, with significant large trees retained where possible, according to Saladino.
“This site is unique, in that there are no private property impacts,” Saladino said.
Total estimated project costs at this location: $550,000, with the town’s share placed at $300,000, along with total annual operating costs of $5,000.
It turns out the most popular platform location is also the least expensive of the four options.
“It doesn’t have to be an expensive solution; it just has to be a thoughtful one,” resident Faith Terry said. “Aesthetics and architectural character should be integrated into the decision making.”
The former train station is now owned by an individual who has no interest in renting or selling the property, according to Jen Murray, Middlebury’s director of planning and zoning.
2) Behind the existing National Bank of Middlebury parking lot on Seymour Street. This site received top marks from around one-third of the survey respondents. 
Officials praised this location for being the most convenient to the downtown, though the start-up costs would be high ($1.75 million) and the National Bank of Middlebury officials are currently opposed to option 2, according to Murray.
The project would require concrete U-Wall supports in the vicinity of the platform, Saladino explained. It would also require a new sidewalk and crosswalk connecting the platform to parking and sidewalk on Seymour Street. Two sets of stairs and a wheelchair ramp would be needed to access the passenger platform.
“It is by far the most expensive (of the four sites) due to the need to put in the U-shaped walls,” Saladino said.
This plan would tap the 13 spaces in the National Bank of Middlebury lot, along with six new on-street spaces proposed for Methodist Lane, adjacent to the Coldwell Banker property.
Resident Arch Tilford suggested passengers could use what he believes are six rarely occupied parking spaces at nearby Bill Beck Real Estate, rather than develop new parking off Methodist Lane.
Resident Adam Franco said this option would be most convenient to get tourists into the downtown, and is also conveniently located to Addison County Transit Resources bus service.
Saladino said the town’s share for this plan has been placed at $700,000, with an annual operating cost of $3,000.
Local officials noted a big outlay for passenger rail amenities is not in the municipal budget.
“We would be struggling to find the money in any of these scenarios,” Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said.
Middlebury Planning Commission member Sam Ostrow voiced frustration that project players outside of Middlebury haven’t provided enough guidance on cost sharing.
“We’ve had great frustration getting better financial information out of the train folks…,” Ostrow said. “It’s been nearly impossible. It’s been very difficult for us to have a candid discussion about the difference between the overall cost of a site and the town’s share, because they aren’t forthcoming about which parts of the project they will and won’t pay for.”
3) On the eastern side of the railroad tracks, west of Water Street. Four percent of respondents gave this spot their highest grade.
Resident and avid local historian Irene Barna noted this site as the location of the first Middlebury train station.
This project is within easy walking distance to the downtown, via Water Street and Cross Street. It offers the potential for future expansion, subject to successful talks with what Murray described as a willing private property owner.
The site would be accessed from Water Street through an existing driveway curb cut; it could accommodate 15 parking spaces, according to VHB officials. A new sidewalk and access road would connect the rail platform to Water Street.
On the down-side, the site is more remote and not easily monitored for safety. It’s located around 300 feet from the Otter Creek and within the designated river corridor — making it prone to future flooding.
Estimated construction cost for the project: $750,000, of which the town’s share would be $500,000, along with $5,000 in annual maintenance expenses.  These numbers don’t include acquisition of the site.
4) Off South Street and Collins Drive, behind the Middlebury Regional EMS headquarters and the new dog park. This received top marks from 4 percent of the survey-takers.
This site is 1.5 miles from the downtown, and isn’t easily monitored. It would require a new access road to connect the rail platform to Collins Drive, and a new pedestrian path to connect to dog park and a 13-space parking lot to serve passengers.
On the plus site, there is ample nearby parking and space for future development.
Middlebury College is the property owner and officials there have said they’re willing to work with the town to make a project happen, according to Murray.
Resident Bruce Burgess said he believes the South Street spot should be pursued. He said the location has a bus turnaround, and has sufficient room for additional parking and a possible train station.
“I think long-term parking is an important factor and needs to be close to the train,” he added.
Others said this option should be disqualified because it’s an estimated 20-minute walk from the downtown and would therefore prompt people to drive and park at the station.
Total estimated costs: $1.5 million, with the town’s share placed at $1.25 million, along with $6,000 for annual maintenance. 
A handful of the roughly 30 people who attended Thursday’s meeting gave local planners additional food for thought: They asked VHB to check out a fifth potential platform location near the tracks between the National Bank of Middlebury and the former train station in the Marble Works Business District.
Folks at Thursday’s meeting expressed concern about how each of the four sites could accommodate long-term parking. Murray said some of the spaces could be reserved for lengthy occupancy, and he noted platform locations 1, 2 and 3 are all located fairly close to long-term parking in the municipal lot of Mill Street.
Saladino stressed current plans can still be changed before the project steering committee forwards its top pick to the selectboard later this month. If the selectboard OKs the commission’s choice, it’ll be forwarded to VTrans and Vermont Railway for further design and a permitting process that will include more public input.
“We are at a very early stage of design,” Saladino said. “There are a lot of details to work out.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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