Some Middlebury residents are concerned about a $55 million project to replace two aging state-owned rail bridges in the downtown. Some say disruptions would be devastating to local businesses, others say they’d rather have trains out of the town center all together.
But the state Transportation Agency says the project is long overdue.
The bridges carry vehicle traffic over the railroad, which passes below downtown. A project to replace them was first considered almost 20 years ago. In more recent years, other ideas including a tunnel have been discussed. The current project calls for slightly higher bridges to meet federal height standards and an expansion of the town green in a spot where the trains currently pass below. The trains would run on continuous welded rail, and drainage would be improved to prevent standing water from pooling near the tracks.
At a special select board meeting this week, Transportation Secretary Sue Minter stressed the importance on finally beginning work on this project.
"It’s imperative that we get these bridges fixed. We hope we can do it with the enhancement to the town green. That we think is the best outcome for the community," Minter told the crowd of a few dozen people.
One construction schedule would have the project completed over three years. That's prompted local business leaders to write letters to the Addison Independent expressing concern over the length of the project.
A new accelerated schedule calls for the bulk of the work to be completed in one construction season, but that would mean 20 hours per day of noise.
Many voiced concerns about safety, with trains running close to Otter Creek, schools and businesses. Attorney Peter Langrock brought up memories of a 2007 derailment of train cars carrying gasoline in downtown.
“I was in my office when the derailment happened. Had those cars gone up, I probably wouldn’t be here. 100 yards away," he said.
Some residents agreed, saying they'd prefer a bypass to get the trains out of downtown entirely.
But officials, including V-Trans Chief Engineer Richard Tetreault said designing a bypass would involve costly permitting and right of way acqusition, extending the time frame of the project even more. “It would be easily a decade before we realize any earthmoving, if that." And the bridges would still have to be replaced for vehicle traffic.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about a longer time frame. The collateral damage from the project plans are already happening, according to Doug Anderson, of the Town Hall Theater. "I can’t book anything right now after April 1st. So the need for some sort of haste in determining how we’re moving forward and how it’s going to affect the community."
VTrans is pushing to complete the project. Over the last ten years, $65 million in public money has been invested in the Western Rail Corridor, and the Middlebury section is the missing link of continuous welded rail, which would allow passenger rail service to connect Rutland and Burlington.
Minter says the agency has handled difficult transportation projects in other downtowns, like Danville and Barre, with success.
She told the crowd she heard their concerns. “There’s been a call for a time out, I do want to reiterate that I think we don’t have clear defined dates right now is because we did make that time out. We've heard that three years is too long. We’re back at the drawing board, how do we re-conceive this?"
Transportation officials hope have a more definitive schedule of the construction impacts in November.