- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont transportation officials have decided to pursue a more detailed environmental study of a proposed $40 million rail tunnel project in Middlebury, which could delay construction by at least a year.

The project calls for replacing two aging bridges in the community’s downtown with an underground tunnel and lowering the rail bed to accommodate double-decker rail cars. It is related to a larger plan Vermont has been working on to improve a 75-mile stretch of tracks between Rutland and Burlington so passenger rail service can be restored.

The state Transportation Agency announced late Thursday its decision to study environmental and other risks the tunnel project might pose after opponents raised questions about the adequacy of a less rigorous review.

“It is unfortunate that the collective efforts of so many can be sidelined by the threat of legal action,” Vermont Transportation Secretary Chris Cole said in the statement. “But rather than carry that risk into construction and potentially cost the taxpayers additional funds, VTrans and (the Federal Highway Administration) have elected to engage in an additional administrative process.”

Jim Dumont, an attorney representing opponents of the project, said Friday his clients were eager to have the bridges replaced, but the Transportation Agency “dropped the ball” by failing to address public safety, pollution and business issues.

It’s unclear if the study would delay a goal of completing work on the rail lines and infrastructure between Rutland and Burlington by 2020. The project would clear the way for Amtrak passenger rail service on the western side of Vermont between the two cities, which would include a stop in Middlebury.

Vermont had been working for years to improve the tracks between Rutland and Burlington so passenger rail service could be restored to its largest city for the first time in more than 50 years. The Amtrak Vermont currently serves the Burlington area with a train that stops in Essex Junction, about 7 miles from Burlington.

Over the years most of the tracks along the route have been upgraded, and state officials last spring announced they had won a $10 million federal grant to help upgrade the last 11 miles of rail on the route.

Transportation Agency spokesman Erik Filkorn said the rail upgrades and other improvements along the route will continue as scheduled.

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