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Middlebury rail bridges work to intensify next month

MIDDLEBURY — Work will begin in earnest next month on a $72.8 million plan to replace Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges, a massive job that will span into 2021 and will result in closure of both Main Street and Merchants Row during the summer of 2020.
It’s a project that will bring detours, noise, dust and periods of round-the-clock construction to the downtown, leaving local merchants, residents and property owners concerned about their respective livelihoods and ability to sleep. Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials and project contractors looked to assuage stakeholders’ anxiety during a two-hour public forum on Tuesday at which they detailed upcoming work and how it might affect quality of life in the heart of Middlebury Village during the next two years.
Leading Tuesday’s presentation at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society sanctuary were VTrans Project Manager Jon Griffin; Mark Alexander, vice president of construction for Kubricky, the main contractor; Kubricky Senior Construction Manager Nathan Speanburg; and Aaron Guyette, project manager with the engineering firm VHB Inc.
Together, they gave an update on work already completed, along with previews of what’s to come this year, in 2020 — the most disruptive period for the project — and in 2021, when final landscaping and road improvements will be made.
“The project being linear and 1,700 feet long, construction isn’t occurring in one location for the duration,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be progressing from the center at triangle Park northward and southward, so the two separate crews will (gradually) be working away from buildings and toward other buildings. At least the worst of the noise won’t be concentrated at any one point for the entirety of the 10 weeks. But there will be general construction noise because of their proximity.”
Triangle Park will be “ground zero” for construction, according to Griffin.
During an interview prior to Tuesday’s gathering, Griffin pronounced the project is on time and on budget. He added he’s pleased with the manner in which preliminary work on the project was carried out last year. That early work included installation of a rail-bed drainage system that empties into the Otter Creek, the undergrounding of utilities in Printer’s Alley, construction of a temporary access road to the Battell Block, and completion of plans for the main project.
“I feel like we’ve got the ‘A’ team working on this,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve shown quite a bit of success with the early work packages, and we’re building credibility.”
But he acknowledged the heaviest work is yet to come, and he and his teammates explained how that will unfold starting this summer. The 2019 work will include blasting along the rail corridor, to deal with rock that must be removed to allow for future construction along the rail line. Workers will then install temporary supports along the corridor to allow for that construction to proceed smoothly and safely, officials explained.
This year’s tasks will also include building municipal water, sewer and storm drainage lines through the construction site.
Drilling and blasting are tentatively slated for Sept. 13-16, Oct. 11-14, Nov. 8-11 and Dec. 6-9, with round-the-clock activity anticipated during weekends within those timeframes. Griffin said the community will be warned prior to blasting and that precautions — including placing mats in the blast zone to contain debris and prevent dust.
Primary construction hours this year, according to project managers, are expected to be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during July and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in August through December.
Downtown travelers should brace for two, separate five-day closures of Merchants Row this year. The first will be late this summer, for installation of municipal water and sewer line crossings. The second is expected sometime this fall, for installation of storm water catch basins and pipe crossings.
Also in the works are two Main Street lane closures, the first — lasting three days sometime this fall — to install new sewer manholes and pipes. The second — lasting up to five days late this fall — to install sewer service for the Post Office, storm water catch basins and pipe crossings.
Printer’s Alley is only open to pedestrian traffic right now, and that will cease for one week this fall for installation of municipal sewer infrastructure, officials said.
Project managers warned Battell Block users will see their driveway closed for one-week stretches on three separate occasions during late summer/early fall this year. But they said access to the Battell Block parking lot will be maintained through a temporary road and pedestrian access from Merchants Row.
Other 2019 impacts, according to Griffin, will include vibrations and noise caused from installation of the temporary supports along the rail line, increased traffic caused by construction vehicles, and temporary loss of parking spots. Shuttles, according to Griffin, will be offered to downtown visitors and workers.
Organizers noted construction will be suspended during the following community events this year: The St. Stephen’s Peasant Market on July 6; the Festival on the Green, from July 7-13; the Middlebury Lion’s Club auction on July 17; and the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, set for Aug. 22-25.
As busy as crews will be this year, the 2019 work will only be the appetizer to the main course to come in 2020.
It will kick off next spring, with an initial scheduled closure of Merchants Row from May 4-22. That’s when crews will remove the temporary bridge, install temporary excavation supports underneath and demolish a series of bridge abutments and ashlar block walls.
Merchants Row will reopen (without through-access) from May 23-26, and then it — and Main Street — will close from May 27 to Aug. 5 for around-the-clock work on the most pivotal portion of the project. That will include removal of the Main Street temporary bridge, temporary removal of the railroad track, substantial excavation of the rail bed and installation of 392 separate pieces of pre-cast concrete at a pace of roughly one per hour. Together those pieces will form the new, 360-foot tunnel that will replace the two defunct downtown rail spans.
Anticipated weekday construction hours (preceding the summer all-nighters) for 2020 will be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during April and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 4-22.
Aside from the noise, dust, vibrations and periods of nighttime activity, other inconveniences next year will include reduced parking and increased traffic on Route 30, south of the downtown, caused by trucks hauling the massive pre-cast concrete segments from a staging area at the Fifield Farm to spots in the Marble Works complex, Seymour Street and the Main Street/Merchants Row intersection.
The Fifield Farm off Route 30 is around 1.5 miles away from the construction zone.
Vermont Railway freight traffic will be suspended during the 10-week summer closure to allow for installation of the tunnel and track repairs. Griffin told the Independent that Vermont Rail recently signed an agreement to use competitor New England Central’s rail lines during the summer shut-down.
Crews in 2020 will excavate and remove — via an estimated 1,800 truck trips — 27,000 cubic feet of soil from the railroad corridor to lower the rail bed in a manner that will pave the way for double-stack train cars to eventually flow through Middlebury. Officials acknowledged some of that soil is contaminated and will require special handling and disposal at a site in New York state.
Guyette described the problem soil as having “very light contamination.” The impurities, he said, in part stem from pesticide use and a major fuel spill during a 2007 freight train derailment in downtown Middlebury.
“We’ve done a complete characterization of the site — 130 samples that have been tested throughout the rail corridor and roadways,” Guyette said. “It’s not hazardous, but it’s contaminated.”
Griffin said roughly one-third of the total soil to be removed can be classified as being contaminated.
“There’s a varying degree of soils in the project limits, because it’s a long, linear project,” he said. “Any soils deemed to be petroleum-based will be handled appropriately and sent to a proper disposal facility. Then there are a lot of soils considered ‘Vermont development soils,’ or ‘lightly contaminated.’ Those contaminants aren’t so excessive that they can’t be handled using normal construction techniques.”
All contaminated soils will be taken, in tarp-covered trucks, to a marshaling yard where they’ll be tested and “sent to a facility that can take them,” Griffin said.
“We expect there are very few soils that are excessively contaminated,” he added.
More than 80 people turned out at Tuesday’s meeting. They asked the project managers a variety of questions, ranging from how construction-related traffic would affect key downtown intersections, to how buildings and parking would be affected.
Resident Margaret Klohck asked how blasting would affect nearby buildings.
“I think of the businesses, and the (St. Stephen’s) Episcopal Church that’s just sitting right on the edge of (Merchant’s Row),” Klohck said. “That’s a very old and fragile building.”
Speanburg  said consultants will record the pre- and post-blasting conditions of each building within the blast areas to determine any damage that might be caused by the explosions. Blasting, he said, won’t be conducted during church services.
 “We’re anticipating around 300 feet of rock that needs to be blasted” in order to get to a proper soil depth for placing the pre-cast tunnel block, Speanburg said.
Traffic remains one of residents’ top concerns.
The primary detour route for traffic will be Route 30, to the downtown roundabout, the onto Cross Street to Rt. 7, according to Guyette.
“The intersection at Court Street/Cross Street will see a significant amount of traffic, with trucks turning in directions they don’t turn today,” Guyette said, noting pavement markings and the traffic signal at that location will be adjusted to expedite vehicle flow.
Mark Bradley, executive director of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, said he’s concerned about extra traffic negotiating the intersection of South Pleasant and Cross Streets. He said a vehicle has almost hit him on three occasions during the past year while walking in that location.
“That intersection, already today, is extremely unsafe by foot,” Bradley said.
Guyette acknowledged the two trouble spots and said VTrans will maintain a fluid traffic plan that will be “tweaked” in response to vehicle circulation trends during construction.
“We realize it’s still a dynamic process,” he said.
Former Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington asked if the current Middlebury rail yard off Exchange Street could be used as a staging area for project materials, instead of the Fifield Farm, as a way of reducing construction traffic impacts.
Guyette said the rail yard will still be active during the project and thus unable to accommodate materials and equipment.
Resident Steve Maier voiced concern about how the steady flow of trucks from the Fifield Farm, through the Middlebury College campus, could exacerbate Route 30 (South Main Street) traffic. That road is already busy during peak morning and afternoon travel times, he explained. Maier asked whether the road might be periodically closed and/or staffed with traffic flaggers in order to handle the extra trucks.
Alexander promised traffic monitoring and alluded to possible delays as larger pre-cast pieces are moved along Route 30, but he predicted “no real, long-term disruption… We’ll do as best we can to work through the (traffic) congestion times.”
Nancie Dunn owns the Sweet Cecily store at 42 Main St. She urged planners to ensure abundant signs to let people know the downtown is open for business during construction. She also suggested project flaggers pass out cards giving shoppers directions to local businesses.
“I think everyone here who owns a business has been filled with fear and loathing about next May,” Dunn said. “In a very seasonal town, this (project) is happening at the height of our season. We’re all losing big, big money.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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