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Editorial: Middlebury rail project — The next prudent step is to stop and reconsider

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Posted on December 7, 2017 |
By Angelo Lynn



A citizen’s campaign calling for a review of Vermont Agency of Transportation’s proposed $52 million, three-year Middlebury rail project has a straight-forward objection: stop and reassess before pulling the trigger on a project that opponents say is two or three times as expensive as the alternative, and will cause substantial harm to downtown businesses.

It’s a clarion call that has been made before, and which was rejected by the powers that be at the AOT.

What’s different today?

Perhaps more details about the shortcomings of the AOT’s plan, and more clarity about a far less expensive alternative.

Specifically, opponents have spent considerable time and research on assessing the current AOT proposal and found that its $52 million price tag may be low. One account reportedly puts the potential price tag at half-again that much or more. While the federal government would still cover the vast majority of the cost (that is if the Republican Congress doesn’t pull the plug on rail transportation projects in a liberal state), it could also up the state costs as well — and there is little extra capacity at the state level. You can bet state budget watchers, from the governor on down, are looking to shave expenses on projects wherever possible.

To put this argument in perspective, remember that at its core this project is about replacing two downtown bridges over existing rail tracks. The lowering of the tracks to gain 21-foot clearance — at the AOT’s insistence — is what has turned a $15-$20 million project to $40 million, plus another $12 million to compensate Vermont Railway for its inconvenience and lost revenue. Remove the 21-foot mandate and keep the bridge clearance at its current 18 to 19 feet and the cost drops dramatically — as does the impact to business.

What’s perturbing about this argument is that the AOT and past administrations have insisted that their hands have been tied to the 21-foot clearance with no-wiggle room. Zero. Nada. To that end, the selectboard and many residents and businesses in town, pursued what they considered the best option available. And who is to say that the AOT’s plan isn’t already too far along to stop, with engineering, planning, building contracts and other expenses already in the works?

 Yet, if the clearance height were to change, and opponents maintain that is possible, then it is an entirely different scenario that the town should fully explore.

What’s known is that the need for 21-foot height clearance is far-fetched. There are no short-term plans calling for double-stack trains of that height, and even if additional freight or passenger capacity were some day needed in Vermont, the alternative plan (without a tunnel) keeps that as a possibility years down the road.

Other issues, however, remain. Water drainage alongside the tracks is a top priority, as is a new rail bed and welded tracks — but those additional priorities are all part of the alternative plan. Details are still not publicly available, but suffice it to say there’s enough evidence to warrant a final public review.

So, why not? Let’s ask the AOT to stop, reassess their plan and the alternative plan side-by-side, and explain why spending two, three or four times more makes sense. And this need not be antagonistic. Rather, the public simply deserves to see how a comparative plan might meet the town’s and AOT’s needs, save a bundle of money and a lot of downtown grief, and perhaps even be a tad safer; or perhaps fall short in one of several ways.

Whatever the findings, it’s the prudent step to take.

Angelo Lynn

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