New bridge finally to ease Glenarm tie-ups Proposed in 1978, job to start in 1993

November 11, 1992|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to build. The bridge over the River Kwai took about two. But those builders didn't have to deal with the bureaucracy.

Consider the small, aging bridge over Gunpowder Falls in Glenarm. Baltimore County announced plans to replace it back in 1978. Not a shovelful of dirt has yet been turned.

"I guess you could call this a worst-case scenario," says Robert C. Berner, the county's chief highway designer, who has spent years wrestling the project through an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies. But the beginning is in sight.

Mr. Berner said he expects to start construction next summer. Another 18 months or two years after that, everything should be done.

The current bridge -- 161 feet long and 20 feet wide -- crosses the river at the intersection of Cub Hill, Glenarm and Cromwell Bridge roads. Built 68 years ago, it has long been an irritating bottleneck for the 10,500 motorists who cross it each weekday.

Tropical Storm Agnes nearly destroyed the span in 1972. Repaired many times since, it is now essentially held together by 20-foot-long bolts. The bridge passed its last inspection in May 1991, but calcium is leaching from the concrete, and rusting iron is clearly visible.

There are some weight restrictions, but the bridge can accommodate up to 31.6 tons for an 18-wheeler.

"It's safe under present conditions," Mr. Berner says, "but we're worried about the next major storm carrying it away. It still floods at one end during a heavy rain."

Who's to blame for the delay?

"No one person, really," Mr. Berner says. "It's the system. The project is complicated by the fact that we're dealing with wetlands, a body of water and Gunpowder Falls State Park."

The "system" is a glittering array of federal, state and county agencies. The short list includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration and the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, plus their state and county counterparts, including the Maryland Historic Trust, the state Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of the Environment. Each agency has subagencies, and each subagency gets its own say.

"It's been very frustrating" Mr. Berner says. "There have been too many players in the bureaucracy game."

Along the way, regulations changed, and so did the people administering them. "We would get a letter from someone in an agency objecting to something in our plans, and by the time we scheduled a meeting on the matter, that person would be gone and replaced by someone who had a different objection," he said.

The project began in 1978 with an engineering agreement between all the parties, followed by a lengthy environmental impact statement. That was finally approved in 1982, but it has long since been made obsolete by changes in regulations and circumstances.

Meanwhile, since road approaches from three directions had to be widened, the county had to buy small parcels of land from seven private owners. More time slipped by. There were consultations with community associations and regular reassessments of the whole project.

"We held three public hearings on the route of the bridge and the impact statement, and another one in 1982 on the design work," Mr. Berner said. The county had to deal with sewer line relocations and bank erosion from construction. Each problem added bureaucratic players, and the county spent the next seven years trading correspondence and phone calls with various agencies and redrawing plans to suit.

In 1989, more problems cropped up. Agencies began to disagree on what had to be done, and federal wetlands regulations published only two years earlier were changed.

In 1991, the wetlands regulations reverted to the 1987 standards, and Mr. Berner and his staff had to zigzag again. Now, the only problem left to be resolved involves water quality, which could be affected by bridge runoff into Gunpowder Falls. Mr. Berner thinks his department has that one licked, and expects to get final clearance from the Corps of Engineers by the end of the year.

The cost was estimated at $4.5 million in 1978, and Mr. Berner said he believes the county will be able to keep it at that figure.

"We scaled down the project, but that figure doesn't take into account the many thousands of hours our staff has put into it. Engineering costs alone rose from $250,000 to $750,000," he said.

The federal government is paying for 90 percent of the bridge cost and 70 percent of the road work.

The new bridge will be 55 feet downstream of the old one, 240 feet long and 30 feet wide, including a seven-foot walkway on one side. It also will be seven feet higher, to accommodate high water from heavy rains. The intersection of the three roads will be reconfigured to allow smooth traffic flow from Glenarm Road to Cromwell Bridge Road and eliminate rush hour backups of half a mile or more.

The old bridge will stay in place while the new one is being built, and Mr. Berner said he didn't expect the intersection to be closed for more than a day at any one time.

Construction, he said, will start about June 15 -- after the fish-spawning season.

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