EAST MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard is asking the Vermont Agency of Transportation to officially get behind a plan to replace the deteriorating Main Street and Merchants Row railroad overpasses with a tunnel, a concept that has been winning favor with a growing number of local residents and downtown merchants.
The “tunnel” concept is one of six project options unveiled in early June by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), a company the town has hired to spearhead work on the two downtown rail bridges. Those options include repairing the two spans, replacing them with new bridges, or replacing them with a concrete tunnel.
VHB engineers last month showed a graphic simulation of how a tunnel might look. Proponents note a tunnel would also give the downtown some extra surface area by filling in the now-vacant space between Triangle Park and the town green.
Costs of such a tunnel have been placed at between $14.6 million and $17.4 million, depending on vertical clearance and related issues. The project must also abide by the new national standard for vertical clearance to accommodate double-stack rail cars. That’s 23 feet, though the town could apply for a waiver to reduce that to 20 feet, nine inches. VHB officials estimate a tunnel providing 20 feet, nine inches of clearance would cost $14.6 million, while one providing 23 feet of clearance would cost $17.4 million, as it would also require a water (drainage) pumping system and could necessitate some modifications to the Elm Street railroad overpass located up the track.
Replacing the two bridges is estimated to cost $13.1 million to $15.9 million.
Engineers have recommended against trying to repair the bridges, believing such a project could not allow them to meet state and federal standards.
The Middlebury selectboard, in a recent letter to Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles, urged the state to get on board the tunnel plan in spite of its higher up-front cost.
“The public presentation of alternatives on June 4 showed clearly how innovative engineering, design and construction can ameliorate the short-term challenges of maintaining rail traffic and commercial access throughout a relatively short construction period,” the letter, endorsed by the entire selectboard, states. “More importantly the option of constructing a tunnel, rather than two separate bridges with a very short distance between them, could reduce the state’s long-term operation and maintenance cost. At the same time, the tunnel will restore the town green to its original form by removing the unsightly gash of the railroad cut and replacing it with usable public space.
“We appreciate the trust VTrans has placed in the town of Middlebury to move this project to completion next year,” the letter continues. “We strongly endorse the tunnel option as the best and most efficient solution to address the VTrans, Vermont Railway and town of Middlebury needs.”
State and federal officials have already acknowledged the importance of dealing with the two downtown Middlebury bridges quickly and have agreed to put the town in charge of the project in light of its recent success with construction of the Cross Street Bridge. The selectboard knows that a VTrans endorsement of a tunnel solution would be key in securing the needed federal financing.
“Hopefully, (VTrans) will concur with us,” Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said on Thursday as she headed to Montpelier to network with state officials.
VHB has also sent along material to help support the town’s case for the more ambitious tunnel plan.
“The least expensive option isn’t always the best option,” selectboard Chairman Dean George said of construction projects.
Ramsay said she expects the state and feds to make a funding decision relatively soon regarding the two rail bridges. In the meantime, the town will begin looking for a general contractor and other members of the construction team. The selectboard will meet in late August to discuss the project further and receive more detailed funding information, according to Ramsay.
Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin next April, resulting in some temporarily challenging times for shoppers, business owners and drivers.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.