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Rail tunnel tour reveals epic concrete landscape

JIM GISH, LEFT, community liaison to the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project, walks with reporter John Flowers near the opening of the massive new concrete railway tunnel under Main Street and Merchants Row. The project is in week six of a scheduled 10-week, around-the-clock work schedule.

MIDDLEBURY — There was a time in my 20s when I dreamed of reporting to work in a war zone wearing a helmet and flak jacket emblazoned with the word “Press.”
Life took me to a different, peaceful place — Addison County — though the flak jacket might have come in handy during some of those Vermont Gas pipeline hearings in Shoreham and Middlebury back in 2013-2014.
But finally, at age 58, I was able to don a helmet for a reporting assignment. It happened on Friday, Aug. 21, and the setting was indeed a dusty, upended urban setting that had endured blasting.
Downtown Middlebury.
The blasting in this case was not an ode to violence and wanton destruction, but a precursor to a new, 360-foot concrete rail tunnel that will supplant two 100-year-old bridges and will bring long lasting changes to downtown Middlebury, including an expanded Triangle Park, a new Lazarus Park off Printer’s Alley, a series of new tree plantings and other landscaping, and historic light fixtures.
For now, you’ll have to refer to glossy “after” renderings of a completed project that can be found on the town’s website. The downtown nexus of Main Street and Merchants Row is currently a pockmarked, gravel-covered island accessible only to heavy construction equipment and workers affiliated with general contractor Kubricky Construction and the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Downtown businesses remain accessible and weathering the situation through a variety of means.
This scribe got a chance to meander through the construction zone thanks to a tour invite from Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison to the $72 million rail bridges replacement project.
Gish led me and photographer Alexa Lapiner on a tour through trenches, over dirt mounds and into the belly of the beast, otherwise known as the tunnel itself, which on Friday was being made watertight with concrete touchups and impermeable surfacing.
Six weeks into a 10-week shutdown of Main Street and Merchants Row, and the results of the labor — and considerable disruption to downtown residents and merchants — are starting to become evident.
The more than 422 gargantuan, U-shaped pieces of tunnel have been jig-sawed into place, and will soon provide a conduit with 21 feet of vertical clearance for future freight and passenger-rail service.
I’ve always been slight of stature, but I’ve rarely felt as small as I did emerging from the mouth of the tunnel near St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Surrounded by steep concrete facades, I gazed up from the rail bed to find the bell tower of the Congregational Church of Middlebury piercing the heavens. I’ve been in that bell tower before to do a feature story. Suddenly, I had a brand new perspective of the highs and lows of reporting in Middlebury.
I instinctively looked over my shoulder a few times imagining a train might come around the bend. But Vermont Rail freight traffic is currently being detoured.
Workers we encountered along the way seemed to know exactly what they needed to do, and were doing it. Trucks zipped in and out of the construction zone to whisk away excavated dirt, or bring in the gravel base for surface improvements that will culminate in a paved bridge deck and new sidewalks for much of Main Street and Merchants Row.
As we walked through an unrecognizable Triangle Park, my eyes became aware of a beehive of activity along the side of Merchants Row. There, workers were laying a honeycomb-like grid of black PVC pipes that will direct the future roots of a total of 12 maple and honey locust trees plantings that some day will provide forgiving shade to shoppers and folks congregating in an enlarged Triangle Park that’s expected to someday host the Middlebury Farmers Market. The park will get its added 0.2 acres of space from the surface deck of the new tunnel, which will fill in what used to be an open rail corridor chasm bordering St. Stephen’s.
Quick progress has been the name of the game, as predicated by the around-the-clock schedule during the 10-week shutdown. Gish estimates there are 50-60 workers onsite during the day, and they’re replaced by a night crew of 25. He has got to know the majority of these workers — even while they’re sometimes sporting face coverings — and shouts their names over the din of excavators and trucks as we wind our way through the formidable, light-grey alleyway through which trains will soon be chugging.
These workers hail from Vermont and New York. They work in tandem and break bread together when it’s time to eat. Some of them stay with local lodgers, while others commute. Some of them are local subcontractors from such businesses as Nop’s Metal Works, Dundon’s, and Champlain Valley Fuels. They’re becoming known at local stores and eateries, which are grateful for all the business they can get during the construction disruption, on top of a pandemic that no one foresaw. The Independent interviewed several affected downtown merchants and residents in an article published earlier this month.
I’d always imagined the project as “the tunnel,” but that’s only the focal point. The construction area spans 3,550 feet of the rail corridor, from the Otter Creek truss bridge to just beyond the Seymour Street overpass. We walked the last leg to Seymour Street, surveying the spot where a new passenger rail platform will be built.
I left with mixed feelings.
The Middlebury I began covering 30 years ago is leaving the station.
But the next stop could be a fun ride.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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