By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — After more than a half-century of debate, traffic studies, engineering designs and numerous referenda, Middlebury is now firmly on the road to building a new in-town bridge.
Local voters saw to that on Tuesday as they overwhelmingly endorsed two Town Meeting Day initiatives that municipal officials believe could result in the new span being completed at Cross Street as soon as the fall of 2010.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said of the March 4 votes. “I’m very excited about our ability to go forward.”
In a stellar turnout boosted by Tuesday’s presidential primaries, residents voted 1,535 to 673 to authorize a 30-year, $16 million bond issue to fund the project, the centerpiece of which will be a span that will link Main Street to Court Street over the Otter Creek via Cross Street.
Residents also voted 1,358 to 829 in favor of asking the Vermont Legislature to amend Middlebury’s town charter so that the community will have the opportunity, in the future, of implementing local option taxes to help cover $7 million of the project’s cost. Middlebury College has pledged to bankroll the remaining $9 million.
Tenny said the selectboard will now turn its attention to crafting a local options tax proposal he hopes can be presented to voters by late-spring, before area schools get out and before many area residents disperse for summer vacations.
Middlebury House Reps. Betty Nuovo and Steve Maier were expected to file charter-change legislation on the town’s behalf on the heels of Tuesday’s ‘yes’ votes on the bridge. Charter-change bills are usually passed without fanfare by the General Assembly and signed by the governor. Vermont Gov. James Douglas is a Middlebury resident whose administration has supported the town’s initiative to bypass state and federal aid and do the in-town bridge project on its own.
Selectmen intend to ask residents to endorse a local option tax of 1 percent on one or more of the following categories: sales, rooms, meals and alcohol. A local option tax of 1 percent in all of those categories would have netted a combined total of $725,319 in Middlebury in 2007, according to the Vermont Department of Taxes.
Towns that implement local option taxes receive 70 percent of the revenues generated; the remaining 30 percent of taxes are kept by the state to disburse as part of its payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program.
Along with sorting out which local option taxes to propose to voters, selectmen will need to determine when the tax(es) should be sunsetted and what should be done if there are any excess revenues beyond what is needed to pay back the bond in any one of the 30 years of the issue. State laws on local option taxes stipulate that such revenues cannot be used for school purposes. The revenues can be used for municipal purposes and/or to draw down property taxes.
Payback on the bond is projected to be at its highest in year two, at $1,164,000. The annual debt then decreases slightly each year to a final charge of $540,000 in year 30.
Middlebury College has agreed to donate $600,000 annually to the project for 30 years, beginning when the bridge is completed.
The project will include a roundabout intersection at Main Street/Cross Street and other road improvements related to the bridge approaches.
Tuesday’s votes mean that selectmen can now move into the first phase of bridge design and planning. That will require the use of $4 million in the newly-authorized bonding capacity to acquire several properties within the bridge right-of-way, as well as pay for engineering and permitting costs for the project.
The Cross Street bridge project is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious and costly transportation projects in Middlebury’s history. It will also be an historic undertaking, as the town is taking the unconventional step of building the project on its own. Most major transportation projects in the state are done under the oversight of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, with state and federal aid. Middlebury officials believe it would take too long — about 15 to 20 years — for the bridge to get built under the state’s construction schedule.
Selectmen held several public hearings on the project last month, which drew only a smattering of residents but prompted some opposition to the local options tax.
Several townspeople weighed in during the annual town meeting on Monday, primarily to show their support and urge that the bridge have safety features for bikers and pedestrians and that it be endowed with energy efficient light fixtures.
One resident, Roger Desautels, voiced concerns on Monday about the location of the new span, which he said was too close to what he said is “a perfectly good bridge” — the Battell Bridge on Main Street.
He also contended the new roundabout intersection could, as pictured, wipe out some parking spaces on Main Street, near its intersection with College Street.
Selectmen replied that the roundabout will not reduce downtown parking and that the bridge location had already been affirmed by voters in a 2006 referendum.
Selectmen Dean George, chairman of the Middlebury’s bridge committee, gave town meeting voters a vivid illustration of how long the community has been considering an in-town bridge. He held up a copy of a “Middlebury village highway report” prepared by the Vermont Department of Highways in 1955. That report depicted a Cross Street bridge as a potential tool for alleviating traffic.
“The problems were seen back then in 1955,” George said. “I’m hoping we can move forward.”