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Building Bridges in Middlebury

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A block party was hosted in Middlebury during construction.

A block party was hosted in Middlebury during construction.

Courtesy of Jim Gish

Courtesy of Jim Gish

A block party was hosted in Middlebury during construction.

By REBECCA WALKER

In the time that students have been away from campus for the summer, significant progress has been made on the Downtown Bridge Replacement and Rail Line Improvement Project in Middlebury. This progress is seen in the installation of two temporary bridges in Middlebury’s downtown strip.

“The installation of the temporary bridges was the big event for this summer,” Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison, told The Campus. “I think the milestone achieved is that we now have two bridges in town that present a safe roadway and safe pedestrian pathways through town.”

These new roadways and pathways represent the changes made in accordance with a declaration that the state issued earlier this year.

“The State Agency of Transportation, with the approval of the governor, made what’s called an emergency declaration. That declaration basically said that the roadways were no longer safe downtown,” Gish explained.

One roadway in question was the one that crossed on Main Street, and the second was the one on Merchants’ Row.  These are the two main bridges in downtown Middlebury that cross over the rail line. They were built in the 1920s, so as they approached 100 years of existence, they may have been fairly structurally sound, but the sidewalks were decaying and required constant repair and partial shut downs.

The completion of the temporary bridges represents a small phase of the bigger picture, which, according to Gish, is “the improvement of the western corridor railway.” A line of this railway runs from Rutland up to Burlington. The large project is mainly federally funded, with 95 percent of the money coming from the Federal Highway Administration, and the state has a 5 percent share. This bigger project will take place over the course of about four years.

Rebuilding roads and bridges in a main downtown area comes with unavoidable challenges that Gish witnessed this summer. He shared that there was a great deal of disruption to the downtown, as Main Street and Merchants’ Row were closed temporarily in June and July and in early August, and there was a particularly difficult period of time when both were closed simultaneously for the construction of the temporary bridges.

“My biggest challenges were communicating to the community what was happening day-to-day so that they could plan out their activities downtown, and then just keeping in touch with the merchants on a daily basis to see how they were fairing and what the town could do to help get them through this construction season.”

In addition to remaining in constant contact with businesses and merchants downtown, Gish worked hard to keep the visiting public informed. Alongside the Better Middlebury Partnership, the Addison Chamber of Commerce and a group called Neighbors Together, Gish helped to staff a volunteer information booth downtown during the project for visitors. This information booth provided information not only about the project progress, but also about places to stay, eat, shop and spend your time in downtown Middlebury.

Apart from the information booth, Gish also worked with the Better Middlebury Partnership to share project goals and timelines with merchants and to maintain business downtown despite the construction.

In a statement on his blog about the bridge project, Gish wrote, “I’m really looking forward to building on this summer’s collaboration with the Better Middlebury Partnership, the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and that phenomenal community action group, Neighbors Together.”

These community groups also hosted a successful block party downtown earlier this summer when both roads were closed. The party even included an excavator in which kids could have their pictures taken.

“It was a really good event where the businesses saw a lot of opportunity to keep their businesses open,” Gish said.

Despite the projects and changes taking place, Gish and other community members hope to continue to attract visitors to Middlebury’s downtown.

“The ongoing mission of our town is making sure that students come downtown, and eat at Sabai Sabai, or shop at the Vermont Book Shop, or frequent our downtown,” Gish explained. “And in doing that they can see how our downtown is evolving throughout the course of this project.”

Looking forward to the near future, Gish shared that most of his work this fall will consist of planning. The next phase of work for the project will begin in 2018, and that stage will be focused mainly on the construction of a new drainage system for the rail line. Most of this work will take place in Printers Alley so that the disruption is less significant than that of this summer’s.

“Right now, what I’m engaged in is meeting on a regular basis with the State Agency of Transportation, federal highway officials in town and merchants to plan for next year,” Gish shared.

As future plans for this complicated project progress unfold, Gish will continue to keep the public updated. Project updates as well as more in-depth details about the larger project can be found on his blog, www.middleburybridges.org.

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