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Community Report: Middlebury Downtown Reopens After Major Step In Years-Long Infrastructure Overhaul

Two men cut a red ribbon on a downtown street with brick buildings.
Courtesy, Kathleen Ramsay
Vermont Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn, left, and Middlebury Select board Chair Brian Carpenter cut the ribbon on the reopening of Middlebury's Main Street and Merchants Row on Sept. 18 following 10 weeks of major construction.

With a major step of an infrastructure overhaul completed, Middlebury's downtown is now open again.

Since pre-Civil War days, Vermont’s rail corridor for the western part of the state has run right through the center of Middlebury, and from the 1840s to the present, the corridor has acted as a major freight line.

Spanning over that rail line are two downtown roadways: Main Street, also known as Vermont State Route 30, and the town's commercial block, Merchants Row. Bridges built in the 1920s nearly made it a century before the Vermont Agency of Transportation declared the infrastructure unsafe in 2017.

Jim Gish is the community liaison for the Town of Middlebury, and has been updating the community in a blog on what is known as the Downtown Bridge Replacement and Rail Line Improvement Project. The project includes the building of a downtown rail tunnel, rebuilding of the corridor in the heart of the town, plus new sidewalks, granite curbing and paved roadways.

Gish said that the complexities of a construction project of this size — one involving federal and state and environmental permitting — made it realistic for the town to turn to VTrans to manage it.

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"The select board's primary ask of the Agency of Transportation was to get the most disruptive part of the project done in the shortest amount of time possible," Gish said. "That led to this 10-week period ... in which Main Street and Merchants Row would be shut down to through-traffic, and the Vermont Rail freight trains that come through every day would be detoured up the eastern side of the state."

While that disruptive phase of the project was originally planned for May, it was delayed by the COVID-19 shutdown, and finally got underway on Aug. 5. Main Street and Merchant's Row reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday, Sept. 18.

According to Gish, one small silver lining from the pandemic was decreased traffic on the roads and from Middlebury College during the shutdown: The timing worked out, because storefronts were managing other, greater hurdles due to COVID-19.

With this part of project completed, Gish said he sees "a new era" in downtown Middlebury. According to Gish's blog, the entirety of the Downtown Bridge Replacement and Rail Line Improvement Project is expected to be completed next summer.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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