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News Maryland Harford County Aberdeen / Havre De Grace

Amtrak continues to study Susquehanna River bridge's future

Officials with Amtrak are seeking the public's input as they begin a three-year study regarding the refurbishment – or replacement – of their 108-year-old railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil counties.

Planing for the project will take at least three more years, the railroad says, so no final decisions have been made about future construction.

Planners have developed alternatives such as a four-track structure with reconstructed approaches on both sides of the river. Officials are also weighing improvements to the "navigation channel" under the bridge for boats, according to a statement from Amtrak.

A public information meeting will held from 5 to 8 p.m. on Monday, April 28, at the Havre de Grace Activity Center, 351 Lewis Lane, at where some of the alternatives under consideration will be discussed.

A website for the project has been set up at http://www.susrailbridge.com.

"By all means, public involvement in the project would be encouraged, and we'll take a look at all the comments and everybody's input," Craig Schulz, spokesman for the national passenger railroad, said Wednesday.

Plans for the construction phase have not been solidified, and Schulz stressed that railroad and transportation officials must conduct preliminary engineering and environmental studies first to lay the "groundwork" for construction.

"It depends on what the study finds, and it will really depend on the alternatives that are presented," he explained.

The study is expected to last through the middle of 2017. Funding for the study phase comes from a $22 million Federal Railroad Administration grant, according to Amtrak.

Amtrak is working with the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration on the bridge project. Federal money became available to Maryland in 2011, after the state of Florida bailed out on a high-speed rail line project that was set to receive millions in federal subsidies.

Completed in 1906

The Amtrak Susquehanna River bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville was completed in 1906 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The two-track, swing drawbridge has been part of Amtrak's electrified Northeast Corridor line since 1976, according to the railroad.

The Northeast Corridor line serves cities and towns in the Northeastern U.S., between Boston and Virginia. The bridge is used for passenger and freight trains. Users include Amtrak, the MARC commuter rail line and Norfolk Southern Railway.

Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty said Wednesday he would "definitely, definitely" attend the April information session.

"What I'm looking for is the footprint," he said, concerning any land that might need to be acquired for improvements to the approach to the bridge.

Amtrak representatives met with Havre de Grace city officials last June to discuss possible alternatives for replacing or upgrading the bridge, including building a span wide enough to accommodate four tracks that they said would be needed for a projected increase in both commuter and inner city passenger traffic. With the exception of its older bridges and tunnels, most of the Northeast Corridor line has a minimum of four tracks.

During that earlier session, concerns were raised over the possible impacts on utilities, private property and roads, as well as the two city parks on either side of the existing bridge.

An Amtrak representative told city officials last year that the bridge is safe but "functionally obsolete" and pledged that any future work would take into account the both the city's concerns and improvements to navigation. The existing bridge restricts passage of some boat traffic, and opening the draw is a time-consuming process that involves taking down a portion of the centenary that carries power to Amtrak's locomotives.

Six-mile study area

The study area for the project covers a six-mile section of the rail line, including the bridge and the approaches on the Harford and Cecil County sides.

The Havre de Grace approach has two parks on either side – David Craig Park is just to the south, and the parking lot for Jean Roberts Memorial Park is to the north. American Legion Post 47's property is next door to David Craig Park.

Dougherty said he has "a lot of concerns for our parks," as well as the Legion.

Jim Eberhardt, Perryville's mayor, said he had been in recent meetings with Dougherty and rail officials. He said Wednesday that a potential location for a replacement bridge that had been discussed would be to the south of the current bridge.

That location would affect piers still standing from the Pennsylvania Railroad's original bridge across the Susquehanna constructed in two stages beginning in 1866. When the 1906 bridge was constructed, the old bridge was converted to a two-deck highway crossing that was used until the Route 40 highway bridge, now known as the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, opened in 1940. The superstructure of the old bridge was later dismantled and sold for scrap during World War II, but the piers were left.

Eberhardt said Perryville officials would have "many, many more concerns" if a new bridge is built to the north because it would affect Rodgers Tavern and the town's train station, which is the northernmost stop on MARC's busy Penn Line.

"Adding to the south side is going to have much less of an impact on Perryville," he said.

He noted Havre de Grace would be affected whether the a new bridge is placed to either the north or south of the current location because of development on both sides of the tracks.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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