I hope you enjoyed the end-of-year celebrations and that 2018 finds you in good health and good cheer!
Time passes quickly, doesn’t it? We’re often so focused on the Next Thing that reflecting on the year just past falls by the wayside.
With that in mind, I thought I would take the time to review briefly with you the progress we made in 2017 toward solving some long-standing problems in our central downtown.
There were environmental, economic, and social concerns to face. And two failing bridges to replace. This was the year in which talk turned to action.
First, though, let’s revisit a key result of the post-construction survey I conducted this Fall. When I asked how satisfied you are with how the temporary bridges construction project was managed, 65% of you said that you were “very satisfied; it was a complex project that was managed well.” Another 25% of you said that you were “somewhat satisfied; on the whole it went pretty well.”
In a project as complex as this one, the fact that our “dry run” was well planned and well executed is an encouraging, positive indication of what’s to come.
So, 2017: month by month, here’s how we did it.
January. The Federal Highway Administration directs VTrans to undertake an environmental review of the project, delaying the start of construction for one year. The study will occupy the next six months. Joe Flynn replaces Chris Cole as Secretary of Transportation.
February. Vermont Rail informs VTrans of an increase in concrete debris falling onto its trains and track bed in Middlebury. VTrans repairs the Merchants Row sidewalk and closes Main Street’s sidewalk along the Village Green after full-depth holes appear in both. VTrans presents its plans for rebuilding Middlebury’s downtown bridges and rail line to newly elected Governor Scott, to the House and Senate Transportation Committees, and, in 1:1 meetings, to key downtown stakeholders.
March. Citing an accelerating deterioration of the bridge decks, Secretary Flynn issues an Emergency Declaration, paving the way for replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges with temporary spans that will be in place until the downtown tunnel is constructed in Summer 2020. Engineering plans and construction costs have to be developed in short order.
April. Downtown property and business owners, the Middlebury Selectboard, and Town officials provide feedback on VTrans’s temporary bridges plan. The decision is made to close Printer’s Alley to vehicular traffic in order to save parking on Main Street. We negotiate a three-week time-out between the two phases of summer construction so that Festival on the Green, St. Stephen’s Peasant Market, and the Lions Club Auction can take place on the Village Green.
May. VTrans releases a draft Environmental Assessment study for public comment. 100+ citizens attend a public meeting at Town Hall Theater to hear results of the study and to provide public testimony. The final temporary bridges plan is presented to all downtown stakeholders in 1:1 meetings. Pre-construction inspection of historic downtown buildings takes place. My grandson Everett James Gish enters the world in Los Angeles.
June. Boots on the ground. Replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges gets underway with four weeks of preparatory construction on Main Street and Merchants Row. ACTR relocates its downtown hub from Merchants Row to South Pleasant Street. Representatives of Barre City share lessons learned from their experience reconstructing Barre City’s Main Street.
July. The Main Event. First Main Street and then Merchants Row bridges are demolished and replaced by temporary modular steel spans. The Better Middlebury Partnership organizes a Downtown Block Party to encourage local shopping and collaborates with the Neighbors Together community action group to provide a downtown information booth. VTrans funds an ACTR shuttle service to bring shoppers into town from remote parking locations. The FHWA reviews the Environmental Assessment document and issues a Finding of No Significant Impact (no significant long-term impact, that is; the project will significantly impact downtown in Summer 2020). The project can move forward.
August. Finishing touches on the temporary bridges project. All work is completed ahead of schedule and in time for the Third Annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.
September. Planning for the 2018 construction kicks into high gear. The focus: construction of a new drainage system for the Village Green area and the downtown rail line. A series of meetings takes place with affected property owners.
October. Planning for public outreach and support of downtown businesses, residents, and cultural and religious organizations 2018-2020. The primary focus is supporting downtown merchants, some of whom lost significant revenue during Summer 2017 construction. The Revitalizing Waterbury team shares their approach to protecting Waterbury during the upcoming reconstruction of Route 100/Waterbury Main Street. Right-of-way discussions underway with affected property owners.
November. Plans are finalized for undergrounding electric and telecom utilities at the Printer’s Alley entrance to the Marble Works and across Merchants Row. VTrans project lead Wayne Symonds is promoted to Chief Engineer, reinforcing Middlebury’s status as the Agency of Transportation’s top priority bridge project.
December. We submit a budget request to VTrans to fund investment in promoting downtown businesses in 2018. The VTrans project team holds extensive meetings to finalize costs, timeline, and work plans for the 2018 construction season. Meetings take place with Secretary Flynn, Governor Scott, the House and Senate Transportation Chairs, and our Addison County legislators.
No question, many in the downtown business community faced financial challenges in 2017 and are concerned about the future. The 10-week closure of Main Street and Merchants Row in Summer 2020 is one of those concerns. The Middlebury Selectboard, the Better Middlebury Partnership, Neighbors Together, Middlebury College, the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, many other local organizations, and, yes, the State of Vermont are committed to keeping our downtown vibrant and open. Work is taking place to secure funding to support that effort. Where there’s a will . . .
My sense of things from two years as your Community Liaison is that the majority of our townspeople and most of our key downtown players accept the need for the project and are willing to shoulder the short-term hardship for long-term benefit. Of course, an annual recap would be incomplete without acknowledging the vigorous efforts of some to stop or redefine the project. You’ll remember that this was also the case with Cross Street Bridge and the new Town Offices. Whatever your perspective, advocacy of differing points of view is fundamental to a healthy democracy.
That’s all for today. See you downtown.
Please keep your comments and questions coming. Send me an email at email@example.com and I’ll try to cover it in my next update.