City moves to repair two aging rail bridges

After years of complicated negotiations between Baltimore officials and the CSX railroad company, the city is moving to replace two badly deteriorating bridges that have been the target of neighbors' complaints since at least the 1990s.

The city approved a detailed construction agreement Wednesday, clearing the way for bids on the Sinclair Lane and Fort Avenue bridges that span CSX tracks — projects expected to cost a combined $10 million to $20 million. The company will pay 75 percent of the cost, and the city will contribute the rest.

"It's been a long time in coming, and there was never any argument that the [Fort Avenue] bridge needed to be replaced," said Christopher Ritsch, the Locust Point Civic Association's president. "I can't believe it's actually still up."

The bridges' visible deterioration led neighbors to demand action years ago, but concern increased after the collapse in August 2007 of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis called attention to the nation's failing infrastructure.

That year, a Locust Point grandmother named Karen Johns — who became known as the "Bridge Lady" — caught the attention of local elected officials by threatening to conduct a naked protest if that was what it took to replace the Fort Avenue span. The structure had recently received a rating of 36 out of 100 points on a federal scale of bridge condition.

Her efforts and those of neighbors eventually prompted members of Maryland's congressional delegation, including Rep. Elijah Cummings and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, to press CSX to come to an agreement with the city.

On Wednesday, Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy transportation director, said the contract for construction of the Fort Avenue bridge would be awarded in late July and, barring a bid protest, work would begin in August.

"There ain't no stopping us now," he said.

Baltimore's Department of Transportation began seeking bids from contractors Wednesday, a major step in a long process of negotiation, engineering and design that has encountered significant delays because of the thorny issues raised by bridge replacements on heavily used city streets.

The condition of the Fort Avenue structure, built in 1920, has been a topic of deep concern in the Locust Point community. In addition to being the main street of the community, Fort Avenue is also the primary route to Fort McHenry. Bridge construction will occur at a time when the tourist attraction is expected to see an increase in visitors because of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

City officials said the Fort Avenue bridge would be closed for about a year. During that time, traffic to Fort McHenry is expected to be detoured onto Key Highway and other streets.

Although the new bridge will not be opened in time for the start of commemorative activities in 2012, city officials said it would be in place in time for the 200th anniversary of the 1814 defense of Fort McHenry.

Work on the Sinclair Lane bridge in Northeast Baltimore is expected to begin in about six months, said project supervisor Tony Grant. He said the bridge would be closed and a detour put in place for that project, which will replace everything except some of the stone supports.

City Transportation Department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the Sinclair Lane bridge was built before 1900 and had last been rehabilitated in 1955. She said the cost of replacing each bridge is estimated at between $5 million and $10 million.

The city and CSX had reached an agreement in principle on splitting the costs of the bridge replacements in 2007, but both projects ran into delays since then, Kendrick acknowledged.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement hailing the approval of the agreement on the city's and railroad's specific responsibilities for the projects.

"Today's agreement represents a milestone in the renewed partnership between the City of Baltimore and CSXT," the mayor said, referring to CSX Transportation. "Working together with members of the community and business owners, we identified concerns and developed creative solutions to the challenges presented by the project."

Kendrick said the Sinclair Lane project, which had been expected to start last year, was held up by complex issues involving high-voltage lines. The Fort Avenue work, whose start had been predicted for late 2010 or early this year, was delayed to allow BGE and the Department of Public Works to complete utility work on the detour routes.

"There is no such thing as an easy bridge project," he said.

Barnes said the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, which killed 13 people, caught people's attention. "Talks began to develop after the Minneapolis bridge," she said.

The spokeswoman also said that relations between the freight railroad and the city administration, which had turned confrontational after the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel derailment and fire, have improved.

"It's fair to say our partnership is solid now," she said.

Sharon Daboin, CSX's resident vice president for state relations and community affairs, said the city and the railroad have been working together on a range of issues, notably those involving safety and security. "CSX will continue to communicate regularly with the city to help minimize disruptions to the best extent possible," she said.

While residents of Locust Point took the lead in calling for the Fort Avenue bridge's replacement, the local neighborhood association had expressed concern about the disruption its closing could bring. Earlier this year, Ritsch wrote a letter to the mayor expressing concern about the potential impact on other neighborhood streets and the quality of life.

Ritsch said the city has since assuaged the neighborhood's concerns. He noted that the city had agreed to locate a temporary fire station, along with a fire truck, to the east of the closed bridge in Locust Point, to provide emergency services.

"Everyone's working really well together now," he said.

Ritsch said the city has been working with CSX to institute what he called a "quiet zone" in the project area.

"Hopefully it will stop them from blowing their horns at four o'clock in the morning," he said.

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