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College pledges $9 million for new town bridge

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November 30, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — For more than a half-century, Middlebury’s quest for a second in-town crossing of the Otter Creek has moved slower than rush-hour traffic along the town’s Main Street.

But that figurative and literal gridlock may soon be lifted thanks to a pledge by Middlebury College to donate $9 million toward a new in-town bridge project that would link Main Street to Court Street over the Otter Creek via Cross Street.

College and municipal officials on Monday confirmed to the Addison Independent the donation pledge — made at the request of the town — which will take the form of annual payments of $600,000 over 30 years to cover the interest and principal payments on the bonds that Middlebury will float for construction of the span.

Total cost of the in-town bridge project is being placed at $16 million, with $7 million of that amount associated with related intersection upgrades, road improvements and acquisition of four properties within the project right-of-way. Selectmen will look to other funding sources — including the federal government and local taxpayers — to cover that remaining $7 million.

“What I hope is that this is a step in the evolutionary process in the relationship between the town and college, that both feel more comfortable working with each other collaboratively, to the benefit of both… ” Middlebury College President Ronald Liebowitz said of the financial pledge for the bridge, a structure he believes could serve not only as a vital traffic conduit, but also as a metaphor for a new era of town-gown collaborations in tackling common challenges.

“I think (the new bridge) is critical for both the town and the college,” Liebowitz added. “Safety of our students is central to our mission. The bonus, I think, is (the bridge) is a key element for the future of the town and the college.”

YEARS OF FUTILITY

Planning a new in-town bridge has been a town challenge since at least 1952, when the old Three Mile Road covered bridge burned (see related sidebar). Selectmen, consultants and various ad hoc committees have spent decades devising bypasses, bridges and other outlets for downtown Middlebury traffic that is now largely funneled through Main Street across the Battell Bridge. The Battell Bridge is the lone, sturdy Otter Creek crossing in Middlebury village.

Local residents last year voted to affirm Cross Street as the preferred location for an in-town bridge. But selectmen have run into bureaucratic hurdles at the state and federal levels in trying to advance the project in a timely manner. The Vermont Agency of Transportation’s (AOT) process for authorizing and funding major construction projects can take more than a decade from the time a plan is drafted to the point at which it is permitted and allocated funding.

As an example, Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny noted the town is just now getting clearance to tap into $75,000 in bridge planning money that had been authorized by former AOT Secretary Dawn Terrill almost two years ago.

“It simply reinforces the point that we can’t simply try to do a traditional project,” Tenny said. “As we look at the state of Vermont and its very limited resources, the traditional mechanisms I think do not necessarily work well for communities, nor will they in the future. I think more and more, we are going to be required — if we are to advance our communities — to do this kind of local partnering.”

GOING IT ALONE

So, Middlebury officials began to study whether the town could take on the project on its own. To that end, selectmen asked the Vermont Legislature to increase the town’s bonding timeline from the current maximum of 20 years to 50 years. The General Assembly ultimately agreed to expand the cap to 30 years.

“That helped us in terms of the amount of dollars per year that are going to be required to handle this project,” Tenny said. “That left us with the possibility of pursuing a local project. There was certainly the conviction that we had no other good course that we could hope to follow, that we would not — any of us — be able to see this bridge completed if we tried to work with the normal channels.”

Eschewing the AOT project pipeline meant forsaking state and federal aid for the in-town bridge, but selectmen also saw some potential advantages: A reduction in permitting requirements; having more control over the design of the span; an opportunity to save money by using a design-build process potentially using local construction firms and engineers; and the ability to take on the project in less than five years.

“Those were great positives,” Tenny said.

Still, officials were left the big question of how to finance the effort with little or no assistance from the state or federal government. Knowing it would be unreasonable to ask local taxpayers to foot the entire costs of an estimated $16 million project, selectmen looked at other potential funding sources, including grants and a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district.

Selectman Victor Nuovo, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy at the college, suggested the town also make an inquiry to the college.

A PITCH TO THE COLLEGE

“The key connection here was Victor Nuovo,” Tenny said. “He indicated the college might be receptive to an approach.”

Representatives of the selectboard and college administration held some talks during the summer. Tenny was gratified by the college’s interest.

“Ron Liebowitz really understood fully, as we made our case there, that the local initiative was required, and that to be successful as a local initiative, it could only be so with the support of the college,” Tenny said. “We had to have a very significant commitment by the college to get us to a point where we could hope to go forward. (Liebowitz) took on that challenge personally.”

Liebowitz said the inquiry did not come as a surprise; Middlebury’s need for another in-town bridge had been a recurring theme at regular luncheon meetings involving town selectmen and college leaders.

“We got a sense that sooner or later (the request) was going to come,” Liebowitz said. “No number actually came up, at first. It was really, ‘could you help.’”

It was late June that town officials presented the college with the specific figure of $9 million, according to Tenny. That number represents the estimated cost of the in-town bridge itself.

“It’s a lot of money, and I didn’t have a sense it was something they could do,” said Selectmen Dean George, chairman of the town’s bridge committee who helped present Middlebury’s pitch to the institution. “But we knew early on that as a community, there was no way to do this. With help, we knew we had a real chance.”

Liebowitz proved very receptive to the request and decided to bring it to the college’s board of trustees.

“The bridge (funding request) was not initiated by us, but was certainly vital to both us and the town, so that was easy,” Liebowitz said.

The institution’s leaders determined the bridge project merited college support because:

• A new bridge would directly affect the safety of the town and the Middlebury College community. The bridge is expected to offer an additional escape valve for the busy traffic that flows through Middlebury, a much needed alternative route for vehicles to take during reconstruction of railroad overpasses on Merchant Row and Main Street, and an extra conduit for emergency vehicles needing to get to and from the college campus and other locations in town.

“The issue of safety and the issue of emergencies for the college, coming on the heels of not only Virginia Tech, but also issues that came up during emergency planning, made it clear that we were as vulnerable as anyone in town as a result of not having multiple access routes,” Liebowitz said.

• The project is to eventually include a parking/retail enterprise on adjacent land off Court Street that is partly owned by the college and the town. College officials said they realize the institution has an interest in the economic vitality of the downtown.

• A new in-town bridge is supported by the college’s new strategic plan. Initiative 82 in the plan calls for the college to “cooperate with town officials as they explore ways to address the gradually worsening local traffic situation. The board of selectmen has recommended a second bridge; if the project moves ahead, it could help reduce potential risks for the college in having a single, relatively narrow (Battell) Bridge that firefighting equipment needs to cross in the event of a fire on campus or in the adjacent community.”

TRUSTEES GIVE OK

Middlebury College’s board of trustees overwhelmingly endorsed the proposed $9 million bridge gift on Oct. 6.

“I think it was incredibly quick,” Liebowitz said of the approval timeline. “I think the case is compelling. (The board) understood and contributed to the forward-thinking in terms of what it means to have, or not have, a second bridge in town.”

Middlebury College Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Fritz and many of his colleagues have followed the in-town bridge story for decades. They have noted how the project has been stymied at times by a lack of resources.

“I think the administration and the board concluded that without a boost from the college, the completion of the bridge would be harder to predict, given the vagaries of state funding,” Fritz said.

He added he hopes the college, in offering financial assistance, can finally “put a period” at the end of Middlebury’s long, in-town bridge saga.

“I think the board is very excited about this,” Fritz said. “This is an engagement we are fully supportive of.”

Liebowitz hopes the bridge can become a catalyst for new town-gown interaction.

“I think the college administration and the board taking this step sends a message to the students, faculty and staff about what our expectations are for engagement with the town in a meaningful way,” Liebowitz said. “That it’s not just a gift every year of $216,000 in lieu of taxes. It’s to make something better, improve on something.”

The gift to which Liebowitz is referring is a separately negotiated town-gown agreement through which the college makes an annual payment to the town in recognition of the services it receives as a nonprofit entity. That 20-year agreement — inked in 2004 during the administration of former Middlebury College President John McCardell — will not be affected by the bridge donation and remains in effect.

HOSPITAL APPROACHED

Selectmen have also approached Porter Hospital officials to see if that nonprofit organization would be willing and able to financially contribute toward the bridge project. Porter officials have already acknowledged the important role a new in-town bridge would play in better accommodating emergency vehicles going to and from the hospital. Porter Hospital President Jim Daily on Jan. 18, 2006, wrote a letter of support for a new in-town bridge on behalf of the hospital noting that better access to the hospital by emergency vehicles was essential to its mission.

Porter Hospital board Chairman Joe Sutton acknowledged the assistance inquiry from the town, but would not discuss an amount or the likelihood of board approval.

“(The request) is something we will be talking about in the not-too-distant future,” Sutton said.

While waiting for a response from Porter, selectmen will also look at the possibility of paying down some of the project debt through property tax revenues from a potential parking/retail building that would be built next to the bridge on land behind the Ilsley Public Library owned by the town and college. Selectmen are also working with the state’s congressional delegation to secure a $1.3 million federal appropriation/earmark to pay for the roundabout intersection at Cross Street and Main Street that would serve the new bridge.

LOCAL TAXES CAPPED?

While not all of the $16 million cost is accounted for, Tenny said he wants to limit the property taxpayers’ portion of the project to $2 million, which would translate into a roughly 2-cent jump in Middlebury’s municipal tax rate. He noted that $2 million “is close” to the 10-percent contribution local property taxpayers would have had to make under a conventional project with federal and state aid.

Local officials also said the bridge-related work could proceed within the next three years even if the entire $16 million funding package doesn’t come together within the next three months.

“It’s going to be a phased project; it has to be,” Tenny said, noting the separate bridge, road and intersection components. “There may be some items that aren’t fully done right away. If that’s it, so be it. We need to start with the big item — get the bridge.”

All of this sets the stage for a very lively Town Meeting Day 2007, when Middlebury voters will likely be asked to make some firm, financial decisions about the proposed bridge.

“We expect to be able to report, by that point, a way forward,” Tenny said. “That way forward may identify all of the funding for the whole $16 million project; it may not quite be able to identify all of the funding. But it will certainly show us close and it will describe the process in determining how the remaining amounts will be raised.”

DECISIONS IN MARCH

Tenny said the town should be in a position to pitch a ballot question on acquisition of real estate — which include parcels known as the Steele, LaFave, Jackson and Pike-Porter properties — that are within the path of the bridge. Officials said the town has made offers and hopes to come to an agreement with all the affected owners.

“It’s a process we hope we can make non-adversarial,” George said. “It’s moving in the right direction.”

Selectmen at town meeting are also likely to ask townspeople for money to pay for the next phase of engineering/architectural design for the new bridge. The combined acquisition, architectural and engineering costs could add up to more than $2 million, according to Tenny, adding that those costs are included in the $16 million project.

While some tough planning tasks still remain for the bridge project, selectmen are pleased and thankful to have a large chunk of funding in place.

“I think it was very generous,” Nuovo said of the college pledge. “As a selectman and town resident, I’m grateful for it. The fact that we were able to discuss this matter frankly and with no beating around the bush and for all of us to come to a solution quickly and creatively bodes well. I’m confident for continuing town/college relations. That’s worth a celebration.”

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