Construction crews are installing two steel temporary bridges in downtown Middlebury, giving the town a taste of what the larger construction project will mean for the area.
Earlier this year, the Vermont Agency of Transportation said two spans that allow trains to pass under downtown were deteriorating too rapidly to stay in place until a planned replacement project is completed in 2020.
Over two weekends, a construction company demolished the crumbling concrete bridges and began installing the temporary spans.
First, Main Street was closed to traffic and the following weekend Merchants Row was blocked off. So for this week, all traffic has been re-routed to another downtown bridge that crosses the rail bed and Otter Creek.
The road closures have meant that cars and pedestrians have had to find new, sometimes longer routes around town. But the town’s project liaison, Jim Gish says the traffic tie-ups are almost over and the temporary bridges will lead to a safer downtown.
“From a public safety point of view both above the roadway and below it, I think it was the right decision to put the temporary bridges in, and an unexpected benefit is that it gave the town a taste of what the construction was going to be like and to prepare with that knowledge in mind for the big project,” Gish said.
The big project is the planned ten week closure of both roads in 2020 as a new rail tunnel under downtown is installed. For the next two constructions seasons, crews will work on improving drainage and lowering the rail bed.
The $52 million project had been scheduled to begin this year, but opponents asked the state to pursue more environmental review. Now the Federal Highway Administration has approved the project, and construction is set to begin in the spring.
Gish says future traffic disruptions won't happen for a few years. “This is the worst it’s going to be until 2020. There was the conception that the project was going to be three to four years of complete disarray and destruction downtown. That’s not the case.”
Some businesses say even the short construction project hurt during the busy summer season. In addition to the road closures, the bridge installation lead to the loss of some parking spaces, so the town is running a free shuttle bus to lots further away.
At the Vermont Book Shop, owner Becky Dayton said business is down.
“If we have 50 percent losses in six days for a short shut down with the temporary replacement bridges going in, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like for three months.” Dayton said she’s concerned about the impact of the planned ten week closure in 2020.
But down Main Street, away from the construction, Dan McIntosh of Forth ‘N Goal Sports says he hasn’t seen a downturn.
“We’ve actually been really busy. There seems to be a lot of tourists in town, a lot of college people,” he said.
On Wednesday night, kids wearing plastic hard hats climbed on an excavator and colored on the streets with sidewalk chalk, while businesses stayed open late for shoppers. It was all part of a block party planned by the Better Middlebury Partnership.
“We thought 'summer night, street’s closed anyway, let’s throw a block party into it all,'” said Executive Director Karen Duguay. The organization wanted to get people downtown, and many turned out to hear the live music and play games in the street.
“I’ve found in my time downtown there’s a lot of people out and about trying to support the merchants since the two bridges have come down. I find town to be really pleasant without traffic,” Duguay said. “And a lot of people up and down the streets shopping, so what I’m hearing is there’s a lot of support in the community which is great.”
And the disruption is almost over. Traffic will be moving over the temporary Main Street bridge on Saturday, and Merchants Row will re-open a week later.