Community members in Middlebury will be discussing a plan to replace two downtown rail bridges at a meeting Thursday with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The state hopes to replace the bridges over a 10-week period in 2019, before Amtrak extends service north along Route 7.
The two 100-year-old bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row allow trains to pass below downtown. But the thin bridges are crumbling, and drainage issues plague the rail bed.
Jim Gish is the community's project liaison.
“Having been underneath the bridges many times, you wouldn’t want to walk under there without a hard hat. These bridges were built in the 1920s, they’ve been patched many times and there’s concrete and other things falling off from under the bridges into the rail corridor,” said Jim Gish, the community project liaison.
Replacement has been discussed for 20 years, but increasing the clearance of the bridges without raising the street level is challenging. The current plan is to create a tunnel-like structure that would keep the roads at their current height, but allow a 21-foot clearance for trains. Gish says the bridge replacement will also re-connect a small park to the green.
“There will be one uniform space from Main Street to Merchants row. The top of the tunnel will be landscaped, so you’ll have a reconnection of the village green as it used to be before the rail came in here in the 1840s," he says.
A schedule released last year called for a two-year construction window, which alarmed downtown business owners. Now VTrans plans to use its accelerated bridge program. Drainage and pre-construction work will take two construction seasons. And in the summer of 2019, the two streets would be closed for 10 weeks. Trains will also be re-routed during the construction period.
“By closing the road for 10 weeks, it simplifies the project, but overall it reduces the impact for the businesses and the public traveling public," said Wayne Symonds, the engineer leading the project for VTrans. "By and large, most communities who have taken this approach have said after the fact that they are glad that they ripped the bandage off and got it done in that intense period rather than spreading it out over multiple years."
But some people are still concerned. A few downtown businesses owners have sent a letter to the state asking for more information. They say the state should explore a rail bypass or replace the bridges at their current clearance. Symonds says the town already has a variance for a 21-foot clearance, lower than the federal standard.
“These bridges that we are replacing, we are looking for a 100-year life. It seems short-sighted at this time to put them back in at the same clearance,” he said.
Jim Gish, the community liaison, says everyone agrees that something has to be done to improve the safety of the bridges.
VTrans has increased the inspections schedule and has set aside temporary bridges that could be installed within seven days if one of the bridges is found to be unsafe.
The state hopes to complete the permitting process soon and begin drainage work next summer. The goal is to have the bridges replaced before Amtrak extends its Ethan Allen passenger rail service north from Rutland to Burlington in 2020.
The meeting will take place on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.