New attention to 5 old CSX bridges

`Deficient' city spans are topic of meeting

who pays for repairs is issue

Sun Follow-up

August 09, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Sheila Dixon and city and state lawmakers demanded yesterday that railroad conglomerate CSX fix its crumbling bridges in Baltimore before it's too late.

Voicing support for a Locust Point grandmother who has been trying for nearly a decade to get a bridge near her home repaired, Dixon called the condition of the Fort Avenue bridge a "top priority," while state lawmakers appealed to the governor and Maryland's transportation secretary to throw their weight into the effort.

CSX owns the Locust Point bridge that leads to Fort McHenry, as well as four other "structurally deficient" bridges in Baltimore. For more than a decade, the company and the city have argued over whose job it is to maintain the ailing spans.

Deputy Mayor Andy Frank said yesterday that city officials, who will meet with CSX representatives today, expect the railroad company to produce a list by early next week of exactly what the company is prepared to repair and replace.

"It's been going on too long," Frank said. "We're prepared to force it to a conclusion."

Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said the company believes the bridges are safe. "We stress that the bridges are structurally sound. But certainly we want to go forward with the discussion of the potential replacement as the city recommends."

In Maryland and around the country last week, people began looking more closely at the safety of bridges after an eight-lane span in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River during rush hour.

Minnesota state engineers recommended seven years ago that the bridge be replaced or redecked, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported yesterday. In Baltimore in 1999, officials deemed the Fort Avenue bridge, which is now 90 years old, ready for replacement.

After what happened in Minnesota, Karen Johns, who lives near the bridge in the 1200 block of Fort Ave., told The Sun that she would stand naked with a sign if that's what it took to get the structure fixed.

To no avail, she has already gone door-to-door on a petition drive and contacted just about every local, state and federal politician in Maryland.

Last night she planned to attend a neighborhood meeting and wave around a piece of the bridge.

"It's a hunk of rust," she said. "I want all these people to get off their duff and give me support."

Baltimore Transportation Director Alfred H. Foxx estimates it would cost $5.5 million to replace the Fort Avenue bridge, which scored a disappointing 36 out of 100 on its most recent inspection.

Any bridge that scores less than 50 should be replaced or have major rehabilitation, according to federal guidelines.

Four other CSX bridges also scored below 50 - spans along Sisson Street, Wicomico Street, Harford Road and Greenmount Avenue. It's unclear how much it would cost to replace and repair these structures.

"We are all concerned," Dixon said. "This one is one of our top priorities." She said transportation officials were meeting with engineers "as we speak, to focus on what needs to be done."

Yesterday state Sen. George W. Della Jr. and Del. Brian K. McHale sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, urging them to "exercise the goodwill and strength of your offices to require the responsible party(s) to replace or repair this bridge."

"If the responsible party here doesn't come to the plate, we can't wait until a tragedy happens," Della said.

Porcari responded immediately, saying he would happily use his influence to help the city, although his office has had "limited success" dealing with CSX on other issues.

"We'll push as hard as we can to help the city in any way," he said.

O'Malley's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, said the governor would help, too: "He feels that if the incident in Minnesota proves anything, we can't wait to make these kind of investments in our infrastructure."

Sease, the CSX spokesman, said today's meeting will be "an important first step" to address the bridge issues - first and foremost, who must pay for the repairs.

"They are certainly a shared responsibility of the city and CSX," he said. "We want to have a thorough and frank discussion to identify the best way to address the bridge issues."

Sease said the public attention is definitely spurring the matter.

"The mayor's keen interest in this and that of the other politicians may help us and the city resolve once and for all what the responsibilities are in terms of maintenance and possible replacement," he said.

Baltimore and CSX have had something of a contentious relationship recently. For 4 1/2 years after a train derailment and fire in the Howard Street tunnel, they disagreed about who was responsible - eventually settling for CSX to make a $2 million payment to the city to help defray costs.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke hopes CSX will tend to all five of the Baltimore bridges.

"CSX needs to take care of its property and take care of the people of our city. I'm very glad we're beginning to highlight this need. They need to get to work for us," she said. "They are on notice."

As for Johns, she's encouraged by all the political buzz that her bridge quest has attracted, particularly from Dixon, yet she won't relax until she sees a repair crew pull up on Fort Avenue.

"Talk is cheap, honey," she said. "I want to see it in black and white."

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