Since my end-of-year update in January I’ve been busy working with the State’s project team and with our various stakeholders in town to finalize the details of the 2018 construction season. We should get underway later in March. In an upcoming blog I’ll share with you what’s planned and how it might impact our town and your daily life. One thing I can tell you now: the disruption will be far less than last summer’s temporary bridges project.
In the meantime, I’d like to try to answer a question I’ve heard from several folks in town during the past few weeks: “Why is Vermont Rail getting $12 million to offset potential business loss during the project while Middlebury’s business community is getting nothing?”
Neither of these statements is true.
First, some background. In 2016, the plan was to re-lay the track every day during construction in order to meet a federal requirement that the train run each day. The result: a project of 3-4 years of major disruption downtown.
That summer, the Middlebury Selectboard charged VTrans with limiting the major disruption downtown to one construction season. VTrans came back with a plan to rebuild our two bridges and downtown rail line in 10 weeks in Summer 2020, provided Vermont Rail, whose trains run through Middlebury every day, often several times a day, could be rerouted around Middlebury and up the eastern side of the state.
So began a long and involved negotiation between the Agency of Transportation, Vermont Rail, and Genesee & Wyoming. G&W, as its known, owns New England Central Railroad, on whose tracks Vermont Rail would run, from Bellows Falls to Burlington, during the closure of the western corridor rail line in Middlebury.
I’m not privy to every detail of the agreement that’s being negotiated but I have attended several meetings where the key points of that deal have been discussed. Here’s what I can report from those meetings.
Federal Highway Administration, which is funding 95% of the construction cost of the project, has supported a $12 million investment in state rail infrastructure in order to reroute Vermont Rail 128 miles up the eastern side of the state every day for 10 weeks in Summer 2020.
That $12 million will be spent on installing new sidings and switches, improving existing track and bridge crossings, and improving the efficiency of fuel delivery by train in Burlington. (Vermont Rail delivers 25% of Vermont’s supply of transportation fuel.) Work will take place in Middlebury, Rutland, Bellows Falls, and White River Junction, among other locations. While the driver is our project, a benefit is an improvement in the overall reliability of the rail network in Vermont.
The $12 million will also be spent on leasing additional engines to pull Vermont Rail trains over the Green Mountains to Bellows Falls and connect Burlington with Middlebury and on temporary labor to operate and maintain the additional engines and assemble trains in Rutland and Burlington.
To come back to our question: none of the $12 million will go directly to Vermont Rail to offset any business lost during the project. This is about keeping Vermont Rail operational during Summer 2020.
Which is our goal in town, too. Not just to keep Middlebury’s business community operational, but our cultural gems like Town Hall Theater and the Middlebury Community Music Center and our churches, including St. Stephen’s and the Congregational Church.
So what’s the plan? For starters, at the Town’s request, the State has agreed to invest $75,000 this year in downtown events, shop local campaigns, and other promotions that market Middlebury within and beyond the community. This money will be spent by us, no strings attached. I’ll be working on the details of this marketing effort with the Better Middlebury Partnership, the Neighbors Together community action group, and the Selectboard and Town management. We’ll reapply for additional marketing funding in 2019 and 2020 once we’ve had a chance to evaluate what works this year.
In terms of direct compensation to Middlebury businesses whose revenue is directly impacted by the closure of Merchants Row and Main Street for 10 weeks in Summer 2020, that’s not easily solved. What I can tell you at this stage is that conversations are taking place with key property and business owners to explore our options, with the promise of more to come. Any solution would need to address the wide range of concerns that have surfaced in these conversations and enjoy the broad support of the community.
Most mornings you’ll find me either in Carol’s or at Otter Creek Bakery for my daily double-shot. On Monday, I decided it was high time to finally check out Vermont Coffee Company’s Café on Exchange Street. If you haven’t been there yet, it’s definitely worth a visit. Great coffee, great menu (check out the Atlanta Dog), friendly staff, and a nice open atmosphere with family-style tables and lots of light. Check it out in person and at the following link: https://www.vermontcoffeecompany.com/Cafe_at_Vermont_Coffee_Company.html
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.