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Opinion: Let's rethink the Middlebury rail bridges project

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Posted on January 18, 2018 |
By Bruce Hiland



Editor’s note: Middlebury resident Bruce Hiland submitted this written testimony to the Vermont Senate and House Transportation Committees to consider at their joint meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18. The hearing was scheduled to take input on the $52 million plan to replace the temporary bridges over the railroad in downtown Middlebury with a tunnel through the heart of the village high enough to give trains 21 feet of clearance, which is three feet higher than it was with the 1920s-era bridges that were taken down last summer.

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To introduce myself, Bruce Hiland — my family and I have been members of the Middlebury community for 30 years. I am a retired management consultant and corporate executive, a graduate of Brown University and Wharton (MBA). For 26 years I’ve been an owner of and for 18 years managed the Battell Block, Middlebury’s downtown “anchor” building. Among other offices held I’ve served as president of the Middlebury Business Association and the Better Middlebury Partnership.

We — you and I — have a problem: Middlebury needs only that its two downtown bridges be replaced and the rail tracks beneath those bridges restored to safe standards. That’s a straightforward task. It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg nor take too long. However you are being requested, encouraged and/or pressured to support a VTrans project that will DEFINITELY:

•  disrupt and severely damage Middlebury for at least 3 years;

•  cost at least $52 million and, more likely, $80+ million.

Why?

VTrans’ insists that MAYBE in the distant future one particular kind of freight car, i.e. “double-stack,” may need more vertical clearance to pass beneath the bridges. VTrans’ unwavering commitment to increasing vertical clearance produced a plan that requires lowering 2/3 mile of rail track thorough the center of Middlebury which, in turn, requires a very expensive underground tunneled system to deal with the drainage problem created by lowering the tracks.

VTrans has been unwilling to seriously address a proposed alternative, which meets the bridge and track safety requirements AND can be constructed to accommodate, should it ever occur, a need to increase vertical clearance. (This construction approach is called “future proofing” and is the hallmark of expertly engineered projects dealing with existing urban infrastructure.) This alternative approach offers dramatically lower cost — less than $15 million — and far less damage to our community. It should take one year to plan and a second year to build.

I am here to specifically request you call a “time out” and require an objective critical analysis and rigorous factual review of the shortcomings of the VTrans plan in order to (a) confirm our assessment and (b) objectively assess our alternative. This does not constitute a delay since VTrans has (a) already installed temporary bridges that meet bridge safety needs for easily 5-7 years and (b) their plan would take at least three years to complete vs. two for the alternative.

Although VTrans’ plan has other significant shortcomings meriting your attention I understand that your time is limited and will comment on only three key concerns about which I believe you may have been misled or misinformed.

Vertical Clearance: There is absolutely NO factual support for VTrans insistence on increased clearance. Passenger service requires NO increased vertical clearance. Not a

single business on the Rutland-Burlington rail line, now or in the foreseeable future, needs “double stack”, a freight car with the largest intermodal containers stacked in two layers. No business imagined in the rosiest economic development projections will depend upon “double stack.”

In a nutshell, VTrans project is based on no more than speculation beyond any reasonable planning horizon.

Federal funding: The FHWA official responsible for Vermont confirmed that Federal funding is dependent upon compliance with the standards adopted by the Legislature, i.e. you. Those standards include a process for granting waivers to recognize specific local conditions. VTrans has already requested and the Legislature has already granted one waiver to reduce vertical clearance because Vermont trains are diesel powered, not electric. The Legislature need only grant a second waiver to leave vertical clearance as is. That will meet the FHWA requirement.

Drainage: The current rail track has been at the same elevation for 168 years with drainage problems only occurring in the last decade or so. Simply restoring proper drainage at current elevation should be a straightforward engineering task. VTrans’ insistence on lowering 2/3-mile of track to achieve greater vertical clearance vastly enlarges the drainage problem, which is then solvable only by their enormously complex and expensive drainage system.

In summary, you have the authority to require a thorough and objective review of VTrans’ proposed project. You are being asked to support a large capital expenditure decision with significant impact of a Vermont town without the most rudimentary cost/benefit analysis. Perhaps of equal importance in this time of societal tension — you face conflicting demands for scarce resources and appropriate government leadership. You have an unusual opportunity to demonstrate to your constituents and to the people of Vermont your commitment as elected officials to simply do “the right thing.”

I respectfully ask you to do so. 

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