Downtown Middlebury rail project hits Main St.

DOWNTOWN MIDDLEBURY HAS been a beehive of construction activity this week as workers prepare the rail corridor for a tunnel that will replace the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges.

We’re trying to give people an extra excuse to come in, and it seems to be working.
— Kiss the Cook owner Luke White

MIDDLEBURY — Both pedestrian and vehicular traffic in downtown Middlebury was slower than usual this week, as work on the $72 million rail bridges replacement project jumped from the train corridor to Main Street.
Main Street traffic was relegated to one lane beginning on Monday as two Kubricky Construction crews excavated several feet below the blacktop to install two new sewer manholes, one directly in front of the National Bank of Middlebury’s Duclos Building and the other at the top of Printer’s Alley, according to Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project.
These manholes are large, multi-piece concrete structures.
Gish explained that this work was complicated because a section of the Main Street waterline runs through the area being excavated. So while placing the manhole structure at the top of Printer’s Alley went fairly smoothly, placing the one in front of the Duclos Building was trickier.
Another issue: Once several feet underground, the Kubricky crew discovered that the sewer line — rather than lying parallel to the waterline as plans had shown — was in fact sitting directly below the waterline, according to Gish. He said it’s not unusual for underground infrastructure to throw a monkey wrench into a big project. Municipal maps — some dating back a half-century or more — aren’t always faithfully updated to reflect shifts in water and sewer mains.
 “The connection between the two manholes in Main Street has run into the water line essentially being not where it was expected to be,” he said. “So a longer process has resulted here to work carefully around that water line. We had to disconnect the water line today (Monday) and shut down water service between the Duclos Building and Wild Mountain Thyme, so they can put the sewer pipe in and reconnect the water line above it. It’s a network of infrastructure underneath our Main Street, some of which is known and other parts, they’re not exactly sure where it is.”
Gish placed the delay at “only a couple of days.” And apart from delaying the work, the unexpected water-sewer line setup has forced Kubricky to remove half the sidewalk in front of the bank at 30 Main St.
As of this writing, Kubricky had installed both manholes and laid sewer pipe the length of Printer’s Alley. But work to connect the two manholes was still under way. Once the manholes are linked, Kubricky will repave and reopen the sidewalk and the Main Street footbridge, according to Gish.
He acknowledged the hardships this phase of work has placed on downtown drivers, walkers and businesses.
Folks from the Duclos Building down to Wild Mountain Thyme had no water service Monday, and were only given notice the preceding Friday, which Gish lamented as being “relatively late notice.”
Pedestrians walking between the National Bank and the Post Office were asked to follow a marked detour via Merchants Row and the town green. Those walking between Main Street and the Marble Works had to cross the pedestrian bridge over Otter Creek near Stone Mill, or use Seymour Street. Both detours, Gish noted, added a few minutes to a person’s travel time.
Once work between the two sewer manholes is completed, Kubricky was to begin excavating across Main Street to continue sewer line work. The new line will run from the bottom of Printer’s Alley; underneath Main Street, Triangle Park, and Merchants Row; and then down the Battell Building driveway, according to Gish.
Main Street was again expected to be relegated to one lane into late this week, and then Merchants Row is set to close to through traffic this Friday and into the weekend for construction activities, according to Gish.
Project leaders reminded downtown residents, merchants and travelers that another round of blasting, in the vicinity of the rail corridor, will take place this weekend, Nov. 8-10.
Gish predicted that blasting will be “straightforward” and will follow the usual safety protocols. Matts will be placed in the blast zone to contain debris and prevent dust.
“This will be periodic blasting with the 10-minute disruption for pedestrians and vehicles,” Gish said. “This is a pretty routine process we’ve gone through many times before.”
The heaviest construction this fall continues below street level. This support-of-excavation work involves driving 333 mini piles — long metal pipes — and 350 temporary metal sheets into the ground along the project corridor, which begins roughly 400 feet south of the Merchants Row bridge crossing, and ends at the northernmost limits of the Marble Works property. These supports will stabilize the rail bed slopes to receive the massive concrete tunnel that will supplant the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges.
One more utility line crossing of Main Street is set to be completed later this month or in December. It’s a new sewer connection to be made for the Post Office. This will limit Main Street travel to one lane in front of the Middlebury Post Office for several days.
Gish said this current phase of construction should wrap before the end of the year before resuming for the “main event” next spring. That will kick off with a scheduled closure of Merchants Row from May 4-22, when crews will remove the temporary bridge, install temporary excavation supports underneath and demolish a series of bridge abutments and ashlar block walls. Both Merchants Row and Main Street will close for around 10 weeks next summer during installation of the tunnel, during which time Vermont Rail freight traffic will be detoured away from Middlebury.

Some members of the downtown business community shared their thoughts about 2019 receipts thus far and the impact of the rail bridge work.
“It’s definitely more in your face, from what we’ve seen so far,” Better Middlebury Partnership Executive Director Karen Duguay said of the recent Main Street work. “Particularly I think the sidewalks being closed between the bank and the Post Office gave us a little bit of a taste of what that was like. Certainly that’s going to be a challenge.”
The rail corridor work has generated varying amounts of noise and dust and has taken up some parking spaces, but does not seem to have had a big impact on downtown businesses, according to Duguay.
“I think this is typically a good time of year for businesses and the conversations I have had (with merchants) show it was a really good summer and that people are looking forward to a great holiday season downtown,” Duguay said. “I’ve really heard great things.”
That said, Duguay acknowledged some merchants have seen declining sales this year. But many Main Street business owners have seen a conscious effort by locals to shop downtown in an effort to support local commerce during its time of need, according to Duguay.
Luke White is owner of Kiss the Cook, a kitchenware and gift shop located at 16 Merchants Row. The store is entering its third holiday season under White’s ownership.
“It seems like something’s been going on in front of our store since we got there,” he said on Tuesday.
That said, White said business held steady this year in spite of various construction-related inconveniences like noise and temporary road blockages. He believes the new tunnel and related improvements will pay dividends for downtown businesses when the heavy equipment finally moves out in a few years. In the meantime, Kiss the Cook will stick to what has been a winning recipe: Offer good, affordable products and showcase them often during special events — such as cooking seminars and appearances by authors of the culinary world.
“We’re trying to give people an extra excuse to come in, and it seems to be working,” White said.
He added he appreciates the loyalty of customers committed to supporting Kiss the Cook and other local stores.
Greg Tomb is co-owner of Main Street Stationery at 40 Main St. He said his business has been “holding its own” during the past year, but added the project impacts are undeniable. He said the recent work on Main Street has “made a significant dent in foot traffic” and thus fewer transactions at the store.
“It’s foreboding when you consider what will happen next year,” Tomb said of the upcoming 10-week shutdown.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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