Town and State Debate Bridge Reconstruction

By Annie Grayer

Throughout July and August, Middlebury residents and state officials have debated whether to replace two state-owned rail bridges in downtown Middlebury.

Originally built in 1850, the two bridges, which are located on Merchants Row and Main Street, are in poor condition and in need of constant repair.

According to the state and The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), renewing the railroad infrastructure is long overdue, and will help revitalize passenger and freight traffic from Rutland through Middlebury.

With the help of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), a South Burlington engineering firm in charge of the project, the current goal is to create higher bridges that meet federal height standards, to improve drainage near the tracks, and to expand the town green near where the trains pass.

Jamie Gaucher, the town’s Business Development Director, highlighted the necessity of this project.

“I think everyone (federal government, state government, local government, Vermont rail, local citizens, business owners, etc.) recognizes that the bridges need to be repaired.”

In an attempt to be sensitive to the central location of the bridges and railroad, the state has agreed to make this a locally managed project.

Dean George, chair of the Middlebury Selectboard and head of the subcommittee that deals directly with the local project manager of VTrans said, “essentially what that does is it allows the town to work with the state and to figure out the best way to replace those two bridges, and at the same time to upgrade the rail…and to have passenger rail traffic in the not so distant future.”

Rich Tatro, the chief engineer at VTrans, also expressed the collaborative nature of the project.

“We have everybody at the table that needs to be at the table.”

However, what began as a 1-year project with a $10 million budget has transformed into roughly a 3 year project with a $55 million budget.

Susan Shashok, a member of the Middlebury Selectboard since 2012, condemned? this change of plans.

“It went from being an acceptable amount and impact to unacceptable,” Ms. Shashok explained.

Some local businesses owners and members of the community support Ms. Shashok, because they are afraid that prolonged reconstruction will disrupt their businesses.

Nancie Dunn, owner of Sweet Cecily, stressed all the negative impacts the construction will have on local businesses.

“I think that the town in general is very very concerned about a three year project that can put some of the stores right out of business if there is not adequate access, and not adequate parking redesigned during that time.”

Ms. Dunn continued to explain how the current plans for reconstruction will also deeply affect town camaraderie and tourism.

“We’ve heard really terrifying reports of how long things are going to be, and how much upheaval there is going to be in the town, which is very scary for a townsman.”

In addition to highlighting the negative impact that the bridge and railroad reconstruction would have on business growth, members of the community have also raised concerns about safety.

Locals recall the damage caused by the 2007 train derailment, 1 of 22 in the town’s history, as reason to avoid further construction on the current bridges and railroad tracks, and to instead consider creating a bypass two miles outside of the downtown area.

Ms. Dunn highlighted some of her safety concerns about the reality of having freight trains pass through the town in the future.

“Having a double decker train going through our town carrying loads of things that could be dangerous, and we don’t know what they are necessarily, doesn’t thrill me.”

Mr. Gaucher explained that the town’s request for a bypass is directly correlated to safety precautions.

“I believe any suggestion of a bypass is rooted in concerns around safety – in light of the most recent train derailment in Middlebury and the prospect of additional hazardous materials travelling through town via rail.”

The suggestion of a bypass however was denied in the most recent meeting on the issue.

To shorten the length of construction, VHB proposed that the firm increase 8 hour shifts twice a day to 10 hour shifts twice a day. Although this change would prevent the construction from lasting three years, it would mean that the town would be subject to 20 hours of noise per day.

In response to the pushback that came as a result of this idea, Mr. Tatro remarked, “those estimates are from quite awhile ago. They’ve been thrown around a little loosely.”

However, Tatro does acknowledge that give and take is required to make this project successful.

“There are some things that can be addressed, but there are some things that are just constraints of working in a small, tight community and incorporating all the design features that need to be incorporated.”

Going forward, Mr. George and the rest of the Selectboard plan to remain highly involved.

“We’ve been involved in this for the last few weeks and we’ve had a couple of small meetings with them, and we asked them to return and look at other alternatives before we agree to go forward with the tunnel aspect of this. We anticipate another meeting at the end of the month where we will be presented with the other potential alternatives”

Although Mr. Tatro sympathized with the complaints coming from local businesses, he also added a dose of reality.

“It’s a complicated, complex project in a village setting,” Mr. Tatro explained, and it’s going to ultimately involve some hard work, some noise, and some dirt along the way like any construction project does, but at the end of the day the town of Middlebury is going to have a really nice center there, which we will all be proud of when it’s all said and done.”

Whatever the next step of the project may be, it is clear that communication and collaboration are necessary in order to guarantee that all voices are heard and considered.

Throughout July and August, Middlebury residents and state officials have debated whether to replace two state-owned rail bridges in downtown Middlebury.

Originally built in 1850, the two bridges, which are located on Merchants Row and Main Street, are in poor condition and in need of constant repair.

According to the state and The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), renewing the railroad infrastructure is long overdue, and will help revitalize passenger and freight traffic from Rutland through Middlebury.

With the help of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), a South Burlington engineering firm in charge of the project, the current goal is to create higher bridges that meet federal height standards, to improve drainage near the tracks, and to expand the town green near where the trains pass.

Jamie Gaucher, the town’s Business Development Director, highlighted the necessity of this project.

“I think everyone (federal government, state government, local government, Vermont rail, local citizens, business owners, etc.) recognizes that the bridges need to be repaired.”

In an attempt to be sensitive to the central location of the bridges and railroad, the state has agreed to make this a locally managed project.

Dean George, chair of the Middlebury Selectboard and head of the subcommittee that deals directly with the local project manager of VTrans said, “essentially what that does is it allows the town to work with the state and to figure out the best way to replace those two bridges, and at the same time to upgrade the rail…and to have passenger rail traffic in the not so distant future.”

Rich Tatro, the chief engineer at VTrans, also expressed the collaborative nature of the project.

“We have everybody at the table that needs to be at the table.”

However, what began as a 1-year project with a $10 million budget has transformed into roughly a 3 year project with a $55 million budget.

Susan Shashok, a member of the Middlebury Selectboard since 2012, condemned? this change of plans.

“It went from being an acceptable amount and impact to unacceptable,” Ms. Shashok explained.

Some local businesses owners and members of the community support Ms. Shashok, because they are afraid that prolonged reconstruction will disrupt their businesses.

Nancie Dunn, owner of Sweet Cecily, stressed all the negative impacts the construction will have on local businesses.

“I think that the town in general is very very concerned about a three year project that can put some of the stores right out of business if there is not adequate access, and not adequate parking redesigned during that time.”

Ms. Dunn continued to explain how the current plans for reconstruction will also deeply affect town camaraderie and tourism.

“We’ve heard really terrifying reports of how long things are going to be, and how much upheaval there is going to be in the town, which is very scary for a townsman.”

In addition to highlighting the negative impact that the bridge and railroad reconstruction would have on business growth, members of the community have also raised concerns about safety.

Locals recall the damage caused by the 2007 train derailment, 1 of 22 in the town’s history, as reason to avoid further construction on the current bridges and railroad tracks, and to instead consider creating a bypass two miles outside of the downtown area.

Ms. Dunn highlighted some of her safety concerns about the reality of having freight trains pass through the town in the future.

“Having a double decker train going through our town carrying loads of things that could be dangerous, and we don’t know what they are necessarily, doesn’t thrill me.”

Mr. Gaucher explained that the town’s request for a bypass is directly correlated to safety precautions.

“I believe any suggestion of a bypass is rooted in concerns around safety – in light of the most recent train derailment in Middlebury and the prospect of additional hazardous materials travelling through town via rail.”

The suggestion of a bypass however was denied in the most recent meeting on the issue.

To shorten the length of construction, VHB proposed that the firm increase 8 hour shifts twice a day to 10 hour shifts twice a day. Although this change would prevent the construction from lasting three years, it would mean that the town would be subject to 20 hours of noise per day.

In response to the pushback that came as a result of this idea, Mr. Tatro remarked, “those estimates are from quite awhile ago. They’ve been thrown around a little loosely.”

However, Tatro does acknowledge that give and take is required to make this project successful.

“There are some things that can be addressed, but there are some things that are just constraints of working in a small, tight community and incorporating all the design features that need to be incorporated.”

Going forward, Mr. George and the rest of the Selectboard plan to remain highly involved.

“We’ve been involved in this for the last few weeks and we’ve had a couple of small meetings with them, and we asked them to return and look at other alternatives before we agree to go forward with the tunnel aspect of this. We anticipate another meeting at the end of the month where we will be presented with the other potential alternatives”

Although Mr. Tatro sympathized with the complaints coming from local businesses, he also added a dose of reality.

“It’s a complicated, complex project in a village setting,” Mr. Tatro explained, and it’s going to ultimately involve some hard work, some noise, and some dirt along the way like any construction project does, but at the end of the day the town of Middlebury is going to have a really nice center there, which we will all be proud of when it’s all said and done.”

Whatever the next step of the project may be, it is clear that communication and collaboration are necessary in order to guarantee that all voices are heard and considered.

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Town and State Debate Bridge Reconstruction