As of Friday, Sept. 10, the Middlebury Bridge & Rail Project has officially hit the first milestone of its final stages, a phase called “substantial completion.”
According to Jim Gish, the community liaison for the project, this phase is characterized by the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s (VTrans) announcement that major construction in downtown Middlebury is finished. The workers onsite finished around 7:30 p.m. last Friday evening, at which point the VTrans engineer on the project declared the checkpoint met.
“There’s still some visible activity in the area, but the kinds of disruption that we’ve seen over the last four years . . . That’s all in the past now as we’ve turned the corner to the minor work that needs to be done to finish the project,” Gish said.
A celebration of the end of the project, which took place on August 21, included the dedication of Middlebury’s new Lazarus Park. The park is named after the Lazarus family, whose members were central figures of the Middlebury community for generations and ran a department store downtown for decades. Governor Phil Scott attended and conducted the official opening of the park, which included turning on the new fountain downtown for the first time.
“So much of my focus has been on construction, so it was nice to focus on the personalities and the community,” Gish said.
Other new developments in the project include the opening of Printer’s Alley, a roadway that connects Main Street and Marble Works that had been closed for four years, and the final touches to public spaces, including the new Triangle Park. The park combines hard space and green space, constituting a venue fit for concerts, town gatherings, and other events that will bring people downtown and encourage the patronage of local businesses.
“One by one, the town is returning to itself,” Gish said. “It’s great to see not only the people who live here walking around and admiring their downtown but people who are coming from out of state . . . just come here and marvel at their new downtown.”
The project was initiated in the summer of 2017, with the dismantling of two bridges downtown and their replacement with temporary structures. As such, the construction phase lasted for approximately four years. In that time, the project was delayed for a total of seven weeks at the start of the pandemic, after Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency. That delay changed the end date of the project from July 2021 to September that same year.
Another challenge that project managers have faced is the developing materials shortage in the construction industry. However, according to Gish, contractors at VTrans managed to work around the shortages without delaying the project further.
The construction of the Amtrak rail platform is not part of the Bridge & Rail Project and is expected to be completed by the end of the month. The town of Middlebury has already hired a contractor to work on landscaping and parking around the platform.
Amtrak is looking to introduce service from Middlebury to New York City’s Penn station by the end of the first quarter of 2022, according to Gish.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the same kind of materials shortages that we’re seeing might impact the start date [for Amtrak service], and it might run into summer,” Gish said.
Although Gish is optimistic about the economic benefits of the project, he also acknowledged that the past five years have been challenging for local businesses and for those who travel through downtown to get to work and school. Construction disrupted both foot and vehicle traffic patterns, and the difficulties that local businesses faced were also compounded by the pandemic.
“Now that we’re out the other side, it just shows the strength and resilience of our community,” Gish said.
Gish noted that businesses in Middlebury’s downtown have been looking forward to the arrival of college students this fall and that part of that excitement stems from the success of the college’s Covid-19 policies last year, which made for low incidence of cases and campus spread.
“The stores all have these signs posted that say, ‘Welcome back. We’re so happy to have you here,’” Gish said. “And that’s directed at the students . . . I thought that was a nice touch, to welcome you all back during what’s a challenging time for [students] as well as for us.”
The next phase of the Bridge & Rail Project will be marked by the completion of minor corrections, like sealing cracks in sidewalks and lining parking spaces. Gish estimated that this phase would take place over the next couple weeks.
Becca Amen '22 is the Senior Local Editor.
She previously served as a Local editor, a staff writer and a copy editor.
Amen is a joint major in English and American Literatures and Philosophy.
During the summer of 2021, she interned at New England Review, where she recorded and produced an episode of their literary podcast. Her past stories include coverage on Ruth Hardy's run for Vermont State Senator and a report on the town of Middlebury's 2019 climate strike.
In addition to her work at The Campus, Amen hosts a radio show on WRMC, Middlebury's college radio, and serves as an editor for Middlebury's Blackbird art and literary journal.