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Mayor meets with residents over E. 26th Street collapse

Public Transportation DisastersFinanceHistoryStephanie Rawlings-Blake

City and CSX Transportation maintenance crews did not do a good job responding to repeated complaints from residents about street damage on the Baltimore block that collapsed in the spring, according to the city's transportation director and a report reviewing previous inspections.

The city of Baltimore issued the report Sunday analyzing the April 30 collapse of a stretch of East 26th Street after massive rainfall. The report noted that neither CSX nor city maintenance crews who responded to several resident complaints about the roadway before the disaster had the expertise to identify the surface issues as symptomatic of a larger failure of the street's subsurface.

While the report revealed a lack of coordination between the two entities and a lack of thoroughness in infrastructure inspections, it did not conclusively say what caused the collapse other than an unusually cold and wet winter.

"While we look at available information and discuss possible scenarios, the definitive conditions which ultimately caused the collapse remain inconclusive due to the lack of exploratory information which may not become available even during the extensive excavation of the failure area during the reconstruction phase," the report said.

On Sunday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake met with several of the residents who were forced to temporarily leave their homes in the spring after a 120-year-old retaining wall failed after heavy rainstorms, causing much of the street to collapse. The meeting was to go over the results of the report Rawlings-Blake had ordered from city transportation and public works employees about the history of inspections and repairs to the street and complaints from residents.

"This is about getting to the bottom of what happened and why," Rawlings-Blake said after the meeting.

She said residents were given a timetable for repairs and were told of the changes city officials had made to ensure that streets, bridges and walls are thoroughly inspected.

The changes include sending out engineers to do ground testing of streets that receive more than one complaint and deploying city workers and inspectors to review the city's aging infrastructure after major rainstorms such as the deluge the city saw last week, which flooded some streets, particularly in Southeast Baltimore.

Some residents have hired lawyers to seek reparations from the city and CSX after being forced to relocate to city-paid hotels or making other living arrangements for weeks while structural engineers studied the collapse to make sure their homes were not in danger.

"We saw that the city appears to admit that mistakes were made, and we're happy with that," said Jeff Bowman, an attorney who represents five properties.

Wendy Wu, a resident who attended Sunday's meeting, said she hasn't decided whether she will hire an attorney. She said none of the information she heard was particularly revealing but that it was encouraging to know the city will move more quickly to send out engineers to inspect areas that receive multiple complaints about structural integrity or after major storms.

Wu and others were told that the retaining wall repairs, currently underway, should be complete in September, with street repairs finished by the end of the year.

"It sucks living there now," she said. "It's so noisy, and things are vibrating."

Last week, the city and CSX agreed to evenly split the estimated $15 million cost of rebuilding the one-block retaining wall, ending months of negotiations over who was responsible.

"We are pleased that CSX and the City reached an agreement on resolving the issues related to the collapse of the street and retaining wall as well as the important reconstruction efforts, and that we both are committed to working together to move forward on this and other issues," CSX said in a statement. A spokesman acknowledged that the company had seen the city's report but declined to comment on it.

The emergency reconstruction of East 26th comes about a year before the city had scheduled an overhaul of the street.

Before the collapse, a city engineer had inspected the roadway and determined that it needed to be rebuilt in summer 2013, placing the road on the city's list of capital improvement projects. It was the scheduled to be rebuilt in 2015. However, a closer examination of the road's history of problems would have been appropriate, Baltimore Transportation Director William Johnson said.

" "What we're trying to do moving forward is provide more guidance," Johnson said. "If [workers] see that kind of damage, [they should] check the history to make sure it's not a recurring problem."

The report noted city and CSX officials who responded to East 26th Street were "not licensed Professional Structural or Geotechnical Engineers," and called for new procedures that require crews responding to street damage to look at a street's history and, in instances of repeated problems, bring in qualified officials or contractors to provide a more thorough inspection.

"There should have been more coordination by CSX and the City to identify the cause of the road and sidewalk collapse beyond a visual inspection," the report says.

Asked if the report showed that the city did not maintain the street as it should have, Johnson said, "There were things that could have been done. Looking back there are always things that could have been improved on. Obviously we're not taking this lightly. … We're trying to look at every opportunity going forward to make sure that we don't have a similar occurrence."

Johnson said that crews have been dispatched following heavy rains since April to assess potential weaknesses at other sites.

"I've got people going to areas where it's been known to flood, or that may be vulnerable to heavy rains or severe weather, just checking those," he said.

He also said the city has made repairs to some other pieces of infrastructure in the city, though he wouldn't say where, and has also persuaded private property owners to make repairs, as well.

"We may not catch everything, but we are starting to see some improvement," he said.

The new wall along East 26th will prevent similar problems in the future, Johnson said.

"The main elements that I'm talking about have to do with drainage," he said. "You want to make sure that it drains properly. If water gets behind that wall and it's not allowed to drain, it puts pressure on it and pushes it out."

The city report cited a lack of coordination between CSX and the Baltimore City government to identify the cause of the collapse "beyond a visual inspection." Johnson said more collaboration is occurring now.

"Since this has happened, I've probably talked to CSX more than I ever thought I would or would need to," Johnson said. "It's kind of forced us to forge relationships and to open up lines of communication. It's in our best interest and theirs."

Still, Johnson said there is "a lot of inconclusive information" about just what caused the collapse, which neither the city nor CSX have been able to nail down.

"If we could figure that out, we would all probably be choosing to litigate rather than negotiate," he said.

The report called on the city to "establish an annual Emergency Infrastructure Fund for emergency inspections and temporary repairs," and Rawlings-Blake said Sunday that effort is underway.

Johnson said the details of that fund and how it will begin and operate are being worked out.

"At this point, it's a commitment that the mayor's made," he said. "We are internally working with budget and finance and all the other agencies that may have needs."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Public Transportation DisastersFinanceHistoryStephanie Rawlings-Blake
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