Middlebury celebrates rail tunnel opening

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Middlebury celebrates rail tunnel opening

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 5:58pm -- tim

Middlebury rail line under construction in August. The ribbon was cut on the massive project today. C.B. Hall photos.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine After four construction seasons and the investment of tens of millions of dollars, the Middlebury rail tunnel project is all but complete. At 10 am on September 18, a Vermont Rail System (VRS) locomotive pulled a VIP train of eight vintage commuter cars through a grand-opening banner at the entrance of the new tunnel, which replaces two aging bridges built in the early 1920s in the heart of the town's business district.

VRS, which leases the line through Middlebury from the state, sent its first freight train through the tunnel an hour later. Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials, Middlebury town representatives and a crowd of 200-300 then gathered for a second ribbon-cutting at the intersection of Merchants Row and Main Street, officially reopening the two downtown thoroughfares that now pass over the tunnel.

VTrans secretary Joe Flynn got the honor of snipping the ribbon across the tracks before the  train chugged  through the tunnel and then, an hour later, cut the ribbon across Main Street, with Middlebury selectboard chair Brian Carpenter joining him in that task.

"This project does so many things," Flynn told the hundred or so onlookers as he spoke from alongside the tracks at the first ceremony. He stressed the tunnel's role as "a critical piece in eventually bringing Amtrak to Burlington by the end of 2021." That extension of the national passenger rail provider's Ethan Allen Express route, which originates in New York City, has been a goal of Burlington's civic leaders since the 1990s.

At the second ceremony, Carpenter invited the crowd to "take a look around" at the new downtown, which the wide-ranging project has transformed - but also afflicted with a loss of business as the project, launched in 2017, has unfolded.

Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn addresses the crowd before cutting the ribbon to inaugurate the Middlebury rail tunnel.

The ultimate bill for the new tunnel and related infrastructure will come in at about $72 million - almost entirely federal funds; state, local and even private funding of aspects of the project rounds out the total. In addition to the tunnel construction itself, the undertaking has included, among other things, lowering the railbed to accommodate double-stack container cars, improving the railbed's drainage, widening sidewalks and developing an entirely new vest-pocket park overlooking the rail corridor on the north side of Main Street. Still remaining on the work list, according to Town of Middlebury project liaison Jim Gish, are the landscaping of the 360-foot-long tunnel's middle portion to create an expanded town green, as well as some further sidewalk construction and finishing touches on the tunnel's walls.

Also on the horizon, albeit as a separate project, is the completion of a passenger rail platform a quarter-mile north of the tunnel. That station, which will include a canopy but not a station house, will serve the Ethan Allen when the long-awaited extension of the train's itinerary from its current terminus in Rutland to the Queen City becomes a reality next year. Vergennes will also get a stop.

Cause for celebration

While an Amtrak conductor will not be calling out "Middlebury next stop" for a while yet, the Addison County shire town had cause to celebrate the tunnel's opening. From the crowd milling about under brilliant blue skies, one heard comments like "This is a great day," and "I just love these wider sidewalks."

"I've got a driveway again!" said Jean Seeler, whose apartment in the center of Middlebury has overlooked the sprawling construction site as the project has unfolded, with its attendant dust, street closures and occasional blasting.

For its part, VRS had to deal with a 68-mile gap in its network beginning July 13, when the route through Middlebury was shut down for 10 weeks to install the tunnel itself. That forced Rutland-Burlington trains to detour through Bellows Falls, White River Junction and Essex Junction in order to reach the Queen City. That detour, over New England Central Railroad tracks, worked "exceedingly well," VRS marketing director Perry Martel told VBM.

But for a railroad, too, there's no place like home. VRS "is looking forward to what we can do now," Martel said. The new tunnel provides fully 21 feet of clearance, removing a key  impediment to the haulage of double-stack cars on the line.

Downtown Middlebury merchants are meanwhile breathing a sigh of relief now that the business disruptions caused by the project have entered history - disruptions made all the more severe in recent months by the COVID pandemic. Three storefronts on the ground floor of Merchants Row's Battell Block are empty, and VBM counted six more on Main Street.

Asked whether it was the construction or the pandemic that had shut the businesses down, Gish said, "It's hard to separate the challenge that it's been from the construction and the challenge from the COVID pandemic. . . . It's been a one-two punch."

Seeler answered the same question with greater certainty. "It was the construction. There was no parking!"

Nancy Dunn, who owns Sweet Cecily, a Main Street gift shop, took a somewhat more sanguine view. "It's definitely affected the business, but less than I'd anticipated, really," she opined.

A sandwich sign in the doorway of the Vermont Book Store gets the day's message across. Photos by C.B. Hall

Asked about the other empty storefronts in the downtown, she said, "Some people closed, some people aged out, some people retired - it's hard to say."

It's not hard to say, however, that local merchants can now expect better times, in the spiffed-up downtown that the project will leave behind. Gesturing towards the Battell Block's empty storefronts, overlooking the newly widened sidewalk and the new parking spaces on Merchants Row, Seeler said, "Now these will be prime rentals."

But the most important statement may have come from a sandwich board at the front of the Vermont Book Shop on Main Street.

"Reopening soon," the sign proclaimed.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.