Middlebury Planning Commission picks site for passenger rail platform

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Planning Commission has unanimously backed a plan to build a new passenger rail platform in between Middle Seymour and Maple Streets. The plan calls for the platform to be placed on opposite side of the tracks from the former Middlebury train station, fronting Maple Street.
Middlebury planners will formally convey their preference to the town selectboard on Tuesday, Nov. 27. If the board agrees with the Middle Seymour/Maple Street location, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) will begin final design of the 300-foot-long-by-12-foot-wide passenger rail platform.
That platform would be intended to serve riders of an expanded Ethan Allen Express train route Amtrak is planning to run along the state’s western rail corridor beginning in 2021 or 2022.
The commission’s choice tracks with the results of a recent community-wide survey conducted by the town and its engineering firm, Vanesse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB). Fifty percent of the 568 respondents sided with the Middle Seymour/Maple Street location. Officials studied three other potential sites: Off Water Street, behind the Middlebury Regional EMS headquarters off Collins Drive, and behind the National Bank of Middlebury branch on Seymour Street.
Twenty-eight percent of the survey respondents picked the National Bank site as their favorite platform spot. The other two sites each mustered only 4 percent of the vote.
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, economic development opportunities, ecological impacts, and the potential to accommodate more parking and a train station in the future — if the service catches on.
The preferred site is within easy walking distance of downtown and Marble Works. It can also be easily monitored for safety and can provide 17 parking spaces, according to VHB officials, who also noted the platform and its access would be entirely within the town and railroad right-of-ways. That means no property acquisition costs.
VHB officials said an existing brush line would be cleared, with significant large trees retained on site where possible.
With a preferred rail platform location now in their sights, town officials will have to find a way to help finance it.
Project costs are currently estimated at $665,000 — making it the least expensive of the four sites that were in play. But least expensive doesn’t necessarily mean affordable. VTrans will pay $250,000 for installation of the 300-foot-long-by-12-foot-wide passenger rail platform, which would have a minimal covering.
But the town would be on the hook for the remaining $415,000 to pay for items such as site work, access drives, parking, landscaping, and other passenger amenities at the platform site. Those amenities would include a new pedestrian connection to the Elm Street sidewalk and a crosswalk to the existing Middle Seymour Street sidewalk.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said the selectboard will likely look to gradually build funding for the town’s $415,000 share through the town’s capital improvement fund.
Vergennes will also be a stop on the Ethan Allen Express train route Rutland to Burlington.
Jen Murray, Middlebury’s director of planning and zoning, sees potential for the passenger rail service to help the local economy. The preferred site is in a residential area, but is also close to Main Street shopping and restaurants, as well as the Marble Works shopping complex.
“We wanted a site that was going to promote economic development,” she said. “It would be interesting to see how this rail platform site would interface with the Greg’s Market site (on Elm Street), if that’s redeveloped some day.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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