Middlebury tunnel project nears finish

WORKERS EARLY NEXT month will begin the final phase of construction on the downtown Middlebury tunnel project. The work, to conclude Aug. 17, will include expansion of Triangle Park between Merchants Row and St. Stephen’s Church.

MIDDLEBURY — After more than five years of planning and construction, Middlebury residents can finally see a light at the end of the downtown tunnel project.
Construction workers early next month will kick off the final phase of work on the $72 million plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. The centerpiece of the project —a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel — was painstakingly assembled last summer during a 10-week sprint.
The marathon portion of the undertaking will resume during the week of April 5 and conclude Aug. 17. Specific chores will include further landscaping of what will be an enlarged Triangle Park, construction of a new “Lazarus Park” off Printer’s Alley, replacement of more Main Street sidewalks, and fabrication of a new passenger rail platform on tracks behind County Tire, off Seymour Street.
Some of this work will dovetail with major repaving and water main projects coordinated by the town of Middlebury and the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), noted Jim Gish, the town’s liaison for the tunnel project.
Starting in May, VTrans will repave significant stretches of the three major state highways that pass through downtown Middlebury: Routes 7, 30, and 125. It’s a process that will include milling, resurfacing, pavement marking, sign placement, and shoulder and drainage improvements, Gish noted.
Here are the road segments slated for repaving, to be performed by Richmond, Vt.-based J. Hutchins Inc.:
• Route 7, from approximately where High Street enters Route 7 on the north (two or so blocks north of the Elm Street stop light), to just past the intersection with Creek Road on the south.
• Route 30, from its intersection with Route 7 at the Congregational Church, south to the point where the ledge drops down to the flats and Fifield Farm (just past the golf course);
• Route 125, from where you enter the Middlebury College campus from the west, down College Street, to its intersection with the roundabout and then across Cross Street to its intersection with Route 7. Academy Street will also be paved as part of the Route 125 effort.
 Gish noted all of the scheduled work on Route 7 and much of the work on Routes 30 and 125 will be done at night, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m.
This repaving work will be completed by Oct. 15, according to Gish.
Middlebury residents and commuters take note: Before Route 7 is repaved later this summer, Middlebury Public Works will be replacing aging water mains on Court Street between Court Square and Cross Street. Residents last year approved a bond of up to $2.5 million to do that work. The Belden Company out of Rutland will do this work, expected to begin in April and to wrap up by July 1. Most of it will take place in the southbound lane of Court Street/Route 7, with traffic during the day limited to a single lane and again controlled by flaggers, Gish said.
A small portion of this year’s tunnel project work will take place within the rail bed.
“They’ve got some finish work to do within the rail corridor, the most visible part being what they call the ‘cap wall,’ or the top of the U-walls that extend out at the north end (of the tunnel),” Gish said.
He explained the cap wall would cover the currently exposed rebar at the top of the tunnel walls.
“I would think the downtown noise will be minimal,” he said, though he noted workers will spend time driving steel sheets into the river bank at the southern end of the project, from Merchants Row to Cross Street. These sheets are intended to support and stabilize the restoration of the riverbanks in that area.
Work during this final phase for the project will be confined to Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At its meeting on Tuesday (see related story), the Middlebury selectboard awarded a contract to reconstruct the Main Street sidewalk between Merchants Row and the intersection with Mill Street and Bakery Lane, and install new granite curbing at the upper end of Main Street near its intersection with Seymour Street. That work is expected to get under way in May, with a completion date of July 1, according to Gish. While those sidewalks are being rebuilt, traffic will be limited during the day to a single lane between Merchants Row and Mill Street/Bakery Lane, with flaggers managing traffic flow, according to Gish.
The expanded Triangle Park, when completed, will feature a combination of new green space and hardscape that will better accommodate public gatherings and potential outdoor markets. The Triangle Park fountain will return to its familiar spot at the corner of Merchants Row and Main Street, according to Gish.
There could be minor traffic disruptions as construction materials are occasionally brought in to Triangle Park and Main Street sidewalks.
And speaking of “returns,” traffic this summer will finally return to Printer’s Alley after a four-year hiatus, thus re-establishing a vehicular link between Main Street and the adjacent Marble Works shopping complex.
Rounding out this last phase of work will be construction of a new Amtrak passenger rail platform. It will be built along the tracks behind County Tire off Seymour Street. This project is expected to wrap up by Sept. 1, according to Gish. Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley told the selectboard on Tuesday that trains are already making practice runs along the rail line in preparation for resumption of passenger rail traffic to Burlington later this year.
And here’s some welcome music to people’s ears: Gish said Festival on the Green organizers are planning a return to the Middlebury Town Green with evening concerts the week of Aug. 2, preceded on Saturday, July 31, by the St. Stephen’s Peasant Market.
Gish and other local officials are predicting downtown Middlebury will return better than ever after more than two years of intense construction disruption, which was preceded by two years of upheaval that began in 2017 with the installation of temporary spans to supplant the failing Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
The inconvenience was compounded last year by the coronavirus pandemic, all of which has taken a toll on merchants and residents leaving a record number of downtown retail vacancies.
The Better Middlebury Partnership is trying to counter that trend by recruiting businesses to fill a dozen vacant storefronts to operate in a downtown that will soon boast of updated infrastructure.
And it looks like the many venerable downtown structures, some of them more than 200 years old, have weathered the storm.
“There were no signs of damage to downtown buildings as a result of construction,” Gish said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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