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Vt. rail chief trains sights on downtown Middlebury projects

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — New Vermont Rail Program Manager Robert Ide confirmed on Monday that the state Agency of Transportation (VTRANS) will wait until Middlebury has finished building its new in-town bridge before launching major repairs to two downtown train underpasses.

Ide also emphasized his commitment to track replacement leading in and out of downtown Middlebury to minimize the chances for derailments and to make the line stronger for double-stack cars and passenger service, two upgrades he said he wants to see in place before he leaves his job.

Ide, a former Republican state senator who lives in Peacham, was named the AOT’s rail program manager back in June. He has spent the past few months getting up to speed on train activities while surveying the condition of rail infrastructure in Vermont.

“I have been on what I would describe as the ‘rocket ship learning curve,’” Ide said with a chuckle. “You learn about the people; you learn about what it is that you just signed up for; you learn the questions you should have asked at the interview but didn’t know enough to ask.”

Tuesday saw Ide in Middlebury, where he got an eyeful and an earful from local officials who during the past year have seen a major train derailment while nervously anticipating reconstruction of two major railroad underpasses at Main Street and Merchants Row.

“Walking up the tracks in Middlebury is an eye opening experience looking up at those bridges,” Ide said of downtown Middlebury’s railway underpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row. “I don’t think a person of good conscience could go home and say, ‘Well that’s going to last for another 30 years.’ I’m not an engineer, but they appear to have some spots that need some repair and replacement.”

The bridges have fallen into disrepair and have long been on the VTRANS repair list. But town officials have been concerned about recent underpass designs that show an elevated Main Street and Merchants Row. State officials are trying to achieve adequate clearance between the top of the underpasses and the track beneath to accommodate double-stacked rail cars that are fast becoming the industry standard for freight.

“There is three feet of elevation difference between where we are and where we need to be,” Ide said. “You can go down, you can go up or do a combination of both. That’s what you’ve got to work with. It’s going to take some creativity and some different thinking” to make that happen.

Making things tricky for the Middlebury project, according to Ide, is that the presence of ledge and the nearby Otter Creek could make lowering the tracks a tough proposition. Lowering the track level by a few feet to achieve the desired clearance would require gradually reducing the grade level of the tracks beginning hundreds of yards away from the bridges themselves, but raising the bridge height causes numerous problems with the elevation of the affected roads. An early proposal by the AOT had considered a plan that would have put the Main Street payment higher than the sidewalk level in front of the National Bank of Middlebury — a proposal that was quickly rejected by the town.

“I would predict when this happens, most of the gain is going down,” Ide said. “I think it is a significant construction project, no matter how you do it. It’s complex and it will be expensive when it is done.”

Ide predicted residents “will see the Middlebury bridge completed before work would ever start on the railroad project.” Middlebury’s in-town project — which will link Main Street to Court Street across the Otter Creek via Cross Street — is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2010. Town selectmen have urged state officials to hold off on other projects that could disrupt downtown traffic during construction of the Cross Street bridge.

Ide stressed that VTRANS considers renovations to the two Middlebury rail underpasses a “high priority.” Middlebury, according to Ide, represents a “pinch point” in the state’s western rail service. He said the train access is currently constrained bother vertically and horizontally as it enters and exits downtown Middlebury. That, in turn, affects the ability of the line to handle freight traffic between Burlington and Rutland all the way down to Albany.

“I grew up in a family business that was very rail-dependent,” Ide said, referring to St. Johnsbury-based ET & HK Ide, Inc. The family sold the agricultural feed and grain business in 2002. “We were heavy commodities, we were bulk shipments, we were 100-ton hopper cars of feed… Our operation in St. Johnsbury was receiving 10 (rail) cars per week.”

It’s an experience that has Ide firmly on board the rail industry’s desire to make Vermont’s railway system capable of handling double-stacked cars to maximize freight hauling potential along the eastern and western corridors.

“The industry as a whole is moving to higher containers,” Ide said. “Double stacking allows you to get almost double the efficiency on fuel. By going higher, pulling the same weight with a train, you can move almost twice as much volume in double-stack as you can with single cars.”

Ide said he is well aware of the train derailment that occurred in downtown Middlebury on Oct. 27, 2007. The derailment involved several fuel-laden cars, which fortunately did not ignite. Ide said Vermont Rail is currently inspecting the track twice a year — instead of the usual annual inspection — in the aftermath of the accident.

“It is not something that is required of them, it is something that (Vermont Rail) they feel they need to do to prove they are operating on a safe track,” Ide said.

Ide’s plans for Vermont’s rail lines extend beyond freight. He believes the increasing price of fuel will continue to send people to other forms of transportation, including rail. He said he wants to see passenger rail service in place through Middlebury by the time he leaves his position as the state’s rail program manager.

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