Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rail spur plan crosses hurdle; on to final design

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A proposed 3.3-mile rail spur linking the Omya quarry on Foote Street in Middlebury, Vt., with the main line west of the Otter Creek can now proceed to final design and property acquisition, as the Federal Highway Administration has determined the estimated $34.3-million project could meet federal environmental standards, the Addison County Independent reports.

The FHWA's 29-page decision, issued earlier this month, specifically identifies a rail spur alternative calling for an at-grade crossing of Halladay Road, bridge crossings over Lower Foote Street and Creek Road, and an underpass for Route 7. The project would call for around 2,050 feet of rail elevated on a trestle, including a bridge spanning the Otter Creek.

The primary beneficiary of the project would be Omya, which is seeking a rail alternative to move the calcium carbonate it mines in Middlebury to its processing plant in Florence, a task that currently requires many truck trips down Route 7 through downtown Brandon. But the proposal also includes plans for a 2.2-acre transload facility in Middlebury to enable other businesses to better access freight rail service.

State and local officials, along with Vermont Railway and business leaders, have been studying the feasibility of a rail spur for more than a decade. It's a project that would require public and corporate funding.

Federal and state officials in November of 2008 released a final Environmental Impact Statement. The FHWA's record of decision affirms many of the findings in that environmental report and sets the stage for more intensive planning of the rail spur and negotiations with property owners whose land would be needed for the project, or would be substantially affected by it.

Land acquisition and the prospect of installing an at-grade crossing at Halladay Road loom as two of the significant sticking points in efforts to move the rail spur forward.

The decision calls for the town of Middlebury to petition for a "quiet zone signal" at the proposed Halladay Road at-grade crossing to free approaching trains from the need to sound horns or whistles. This is being pitched as a means of reducing noise disturbances for area neighbors.

Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger was formerly the top administrator for the town of Shelburne. He recalled how each "quiet zone" crossing cost $1,000,000 to construct in that community.

"The railroad will not support a quiet zone," Finger wrote in a recent memo to Middlebury selectmen.

Selectboard Chairman John Tenny said he sees some merits in the at-grade crossing.

"It lowers the overall impact and profile of the project, so I think it will have a lot less impact on those residents and the landscape as a whole," Tenny said.

Mark Perrin and his family own property off Creek Road that would be within the path, and view, of the proposed rail spur. He is concerned about the impact the project would have on his family's land and wonders how the federal government will proceed with land negotiations. Perrin noted some of the land needed for the plan is currently locked up in state and local conservation easements.

"Some folks purchased their property here knowing they were protected by (conservation restrictions)," Perrin said.

Perrin said he hopes that more information about the project and its funding sources will come to light now that the FHWA has weighed in with its decision.

"I hope (project organizers) will talk to the property owners and spell out who are the real winners and losers in building this spur," Perrin said.

Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said the FHWA decision is merely a "milestone" in a process that is simply entering a new phase.

"It's not over yet," Dunnington said.

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