Middlebury residents are pressuring the Shumlin administration to back off plans to improve a rail line through the Addison County town.
The Agency of Transportation plans to replace two deteriorating bridges in downtown Middlebury, and local residents have raised questions about improvements and the overall safety of the rail line.
In a strongly worded letter, 65 business owners and residents told Gov. Peter Shumlin they are "aghast" at VTrans' plans for $40 million to $50 million rail enhancements.
The nearly adjoining bridges, on Main Street and Merchants' Row, "have been neglected for too long," the letter states, "and present a serious threat to the safety of downtown motor and foot traffic."
The residents object to the state's plan to lower the rail bed in order to increase the vertical clearance under the bridges to accommodate double-stack trains. The nation's freight system makes extensive use of such trains, whose cars carry one shipping container atop another.
When rail bridges are rebuilt, Vermont law requires clearances of up to 23 feet between the rails and overpass to accommodate tall trains.
Middlebury opponents cast doubt on whether federal funding is contingent on the clearance requirement.
In recommended criteria for federally supported highway projects, the Federal Highway Administration cites bridge-clearance specifications developed by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA).
State law has incorporated the relevant AREMA criterion, 23 feet, but retained the state's right to establish a variance to the standard. Last spring, at VTrans's request, the Legislature thus modified the AREMA standard so as to allow the Middlebury project, and only the Middlebury project, to proceed with a 21-foot clearance, which translates into a three-foot lowering of the track under the bridges.
Middlebury resident Bruce Hiland who organized the letter to the governor says lowering the rails by 3 feet would require excavation through the entirety of Middlebury's downtown, since trains can only negotiate very gradual grades.
In an attachment to an August letter to the town's selectboard, then-transportation secretary Sue Minter noted that, even without providing for double-stack trains, "there would be a need for lowering the rail tracks because the thickness of the bridge decks will be substantially more than exists today."
Hiland said the excavation is "not a trivial undertaking. That has enormous import." The letter to Shumlin says "AOT's intransigence threatens us with four years of disruptions to the core of Middlebury [and] three construction seasons with two-a-day 10 hour work shifts – 20 hours! – with their attendant noise and light pollution."
Construction would begin in September 2016, with 10-hour construction workdays that season, and two 10-hour shifts in second and third construction seasons. Completion in 2018 is the hope, but a prolongation into 2019 appears likely. The schedule anticipates that "several weeks will be spent lowering the tracks through excavation" in 2018.
Richard Tetreault, deputy secretary of VTrans, said the work will be sequential, avoiding the need to keep Middlebury's streets ripped apart any longer than necessary. The 2016 work, he said, will take place primarily on the tracks, keeping the bridges above intact. They will be both removed and replaced during the 2017 construction season. The minutes of the selectboard meeting refer to "two new bridge decks expected to be in place by late summer" of that year.
"The big heavy lift is 2017," Tetreault said. The streets will not be impacted for four years, he said. The track-lowering work, however, will generate noise, he said, and construction workers will need access to work areas and space to stage equipment and materials.
Tetreault stressed that the project is still in the design stage, and schedules are subject to change.
Bypass Not an Option
Some project opponents have called for a rail bypass around the town's urban area, but Minter rejected that idea in August.
The rails through Middlebury will be confined to the downtown route, as they have been since the mid-1800s. That inevitability, and the project's duration and noise, have plenty of businesses and downtown residents worried.
"It's a project that needs to happen. I don't think people in town are questioning that. . . . My fear is the disruption of business and access to business," said Main Street gift shop owner Nancie Dunn, alluding particularly to the loss of parking.
"A single construction cycle will be inconvenient at best," Middlebury Inn owner Michael Dopp told the selectboard in a Sept. 11 letter, "but if this extends into two or three years it may prove fatal to some businesses."
The letter to Shumlin also raises the specter of hazardous cargoes rolling through the construction site, saying that "the AOT plan calls for two trains per day carrying 350,000 gallons of fuel and other hazardous materials through the work site."
"I don't know if there's a single document that states the entirety of the plan," Hiland said, when asked to document the plan referred to."It's what everybody in Middlebury who has followed this knows to be the sum of [VTrans'] intention."
Vermont Railway president David Wulfson said there would be two trains daily when construction work is not taking place.
Residents have also expressed concerns about the railroad line's overall safety. Drainage problems can cause derailments, and a 2007 derailment of 15 tank cars full of gasoline nearly led to a catastrophe on the section of track to be affected by the bridge project.
The state owns the railroad as well as the bridges and leases the railroad to Burlington-based Vermont Railway.