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No Rail Bypass For Middlebury, Transportation Officials Say

Melody Bodette
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Middlebury sits just above the railroad tracks where a major construction project is planned.

Dozens of people packed into a special Middlebury select board meeting last month to share their concerns over the planned replacement of two rail road bridges in the downtown. Some said they'd rather see a rail bypass. But transportation officials say a bypass isn't feasible. 

In a letter to the Middlebury select board, Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said that a bypass would take a decade to complete and cost nearly twice as much as the bridge replacement.

Minter pointed out that the state has been working with former town manager Bill Finger to manage the project. Selectboard Chairman Dean George says the board will form a subcommittee to focus more closely on the project.

"We’re essentially being told that it’s a locally-managed project and a lot of the decisions will come from where we want to go with this. I’m not sure how much influence we’ll actually have if the project has to go in its designated route, other than the time of the construction, the disruption of the downtown, that sort of thing," George said.

George says up until now, the town has been told it would be a one-year construction project. While the most disruptive work will be done in that time, the entire project will take longer to complete, and that has businesses concerned.

"We're essentially being told that it's a locally managed project and a lot of the decisions will come from where we want to go with this. I'm not sure how much influence we'll actually have if the project has to go in its designated route." - Dean George, Middlebury Select Board Chair

"When we hear about a three-year construction period, we look at that as a death knell to a lot of businesses, who can't survive a disruption of that length of time," he said. "So we want to mitigate the time of construction, certainly the amount of construction that’s going to take place at street level and closure of streets and that kind of thing."

Town officials are also worried that the construction could potentially damage historic buildings near the rail road bridges. The transportation agency says it has a plan in place to check for damage. George said in addition to monitoring the buildings he'd like to see steps taken to protect them. 

"If something in the construction process looks like it might disrupt them, we don’t want to wait until after the fact to have to fix them," he said. "We’d rather stop construction and figure out whatever needs to be done without damaging the building, particularly St. Stephen’s Church, which is the closet to the rail."

In her letter, Minter said VTrans will work with the town to reduce construction noise and complete major construction in one year. She said downtown businesses shouldn't worry about construction impacts until September 2016.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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