Trains, tracks and kids: a perilous combination 2 E. Balto. Co. areas want a foot bridge over the tracks.

July 13, 1992|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

On a recent sultry afternoon, as heat waves danced above the train tracks dividing the eastern Baltimore County communities of Harewood Park and Oliver Beach, a northbound Amtrak Metroliner roared past with frightening speed.

Minutes later, two Oliver Beach youths darted out from the thick wild rose and honeysuckle bushes along the tracks. With arms outstretched to balance themselves, they seemed to be floating in the shimmering heat as they jumped from rail to rail. They were heading for the Harewood Food Market for a soda.

"I don't like the idea of crossing the tracks, but I don't want to walk two miles around just for a soda either," said one youth, adding that he crosses the tracks at least six times a week.

These crossings make the residents of Harewood Park and Oliver Beach uneasy. They fear that one day one of the children might be hit by a 100-mph Metroliner. It has happened before. Ten years ago, an Oliver Beach teen-ager lost half his foot.

Leaders from both communities agreed last week to push local, state and federal officials for construction of a $1 million pedestrian foot bridge over the Amtrak line separating their neighborhoods.

Though federal funds for a 50-foot-high crosswalk are available, neither Amtrak, the state Mass Transit Administration nor Baltimore County wants to take responsibility for maintaining the structure.

And, two private property owners who apparently own the right-of-way on one side of the proposed foot bridge have said they're not interested in giving away one inch of ground.

This leaves the residents wondering if someone's child will pay for the delays.

"It's just a matter of time before one of our kids are killed," said Dawn Kerner, a resident of Harewood Park.

Last year, a Metroliner came roaring through one early evening and caught two teen-age girls by surprise. They were almost hit. Mrs. Kerner, who lives three doors down from the crossing site, heard the girls screaming. She decided something had to be done.

"I went right into the house and started calling officials," Mrs. Kerner said.

Since then, preliminary designs for the bridge have been drawn, showing a 50-foot-high concrete crosswalk enclosed with thick wire mesh. The money is available through Maryland's share of a federal transportation funding bill passed this year, and the state Mass Transit Administration is willing to use the money to build the bridge.

According to Renee Banks, government affairs manager for Amtrak, once the agency gets an official proposal, it is likely to approve using its right-of-way for the bridge. But there remains one catch: Who will take care of the bridge?

Paul L. Hudson, chief of the engineering bureau of the county Department of Public Works, said routine maintenance would cost approximately $22,000 a year plus another $100,000 every two years for inspection.

"The county can't really afford that cost right now," said Mr. Hudson.

Mr. Hudson said it would be simpler if Amtrak maintained the bridge. But, according to Amtrak's Ms. Banks, "Amtrak is not going to agree to take over ownership or responsibility for the foot bridge."

The Maryland State Highway Administration does maintain a foot bridge over an Amtrak line in Aberdeen, but only because it is connected with a state road.

Charles Creswell, an aide to Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, has been working with the residents and hopes the different agencies can agree to share responsibility for maintaining the bridge.

Yet even if the bureaucracies cooperate, the property owners on either side of the unimproved road on the Oliver Beach side of the tracks would have to give up a piece of their land for the bridge access right-of-way. So far, they have refused.

"How would you like a monstrosity like that in your back yard?" asked David Peacock, one of the property owners.

A check on the unimproved road along the track showed that the county installed a water main along its stretch in 1965, but there is no record of the road having been deeded to the county as is usually the case.

When community leaders asked if the county could condemn the road, and thus eliminate the need for the property owners to give up any land, they were told the county executive would have to make that decision. And, money for the condemnation would have to be approved by the County Council.

Mr. Hudson of the public works department has said he will have the county legal department look into the history of the unimproved road to see if the county has any rights to the property.

"But right now, it appears like each property owner legally owns out to the center line of the 20-foot-wide road," said Mr. Hudson.

While residents wait for the bureaucratic obstacles to be removed, young people -- as many as 30 a day -- continue to use the tracks as a short cut.

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