Report says 'no significant impact' of chosen route for new Amtrak Susquehanna bridge

The Federal Railroad Administration has issued a "Finding of No Significant Impact," or FONSI, for the selected route of the replacement of Amtrak's Susquehanna River Rail Bridge.

The finding means Amtrak will not have to conduct a more in-depth environmental review of a project that is expected to have a significant impact on the landscapes of Havre de Grace and Perryville.

"The project will have a huge impact on the city and the region, and we're urging everyone to get familiar with the FONSI," Patrick Sypolt, Havre de Grace's director of administration, said during a recent City Council meeting.

Despite its overall finding, the report details a number of impacts, such as street alignments in Havre de Grace that will have to be changed, acquistion of a small sliver land from the Havre de Grace Middle School property where Harford County is planning construction of a nearly $100 million combination high and middle school and changes to one of Havre de Grace's waterfront parks, as well as to the Perryville waterfront on the eastern shore of the river.

The bridge project, whose estimated cost approaches $1 billion, would be the most costly public works project ever undertaken in Harford and Cecil counties.

The planning process, which began nearly four years ago, has proceeded amid a growing national discussion about the need for massive infrastructure projects, spurred by last fall's election of President Donald Trump, but also how to pay for them.

Hard copies of the report are available at Havre de Grace City Hall, which is at 711 Pennington Ave., plus the FONSI is online at the city's website, http://www.havredegracemd.com, and the project website, http://www.susrailbridge.com, according to Sypolt.

Amtrak, the national passenger railroad line, owns and operates the aging two-track bridge, which was built in 1906.

"Amtrak, as the bridge owner, will continue to maintain and evaluate the bridge and make sure it's safe, so right now not much will change until funding is available for a full design," Jacqueline Thorne, the Maryland Department of Transportation project manager for the rail bridge project, said Monday.

The issuance of the document, dated May 31, comes toward the end of a four-year period of gathering public input, reviewing a slew of alternatives for new bridge routes, preliminary engineering and completing an initial environmental assessment.

The research period, which started in 2013 and ends June 30, was funded by a $22 million federal stimulus grant.

It will take 10 to 12 years to design and build the structure, according to Thorne; however, the start date for that process depends on the availability of funding.

"We will continue to work closely with Amtrak and the FRA to seek out grants or sources [of funds]," Thorne said.

The bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville, is a key part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. The FONSI describes that corridor as "the most heavily-used passenger rail line in North America, both in terms of ridership and service frequency, and one of the most heavily-traveled rail corridors in the world."

The existing bridge supports Amtrak's high-speed passenger rail service, as well as regional MARC commuter rail traffic and Norfolk Southern freight rail traffic.

The new bridge would consist of four tracks on two separate spans. The first span would be built just north of the exiting bridge, then the old bridge would be demolished and the second span built in its place.

The FONSI indicates minimal impacts to wetlands, forests, floodplains wildlife, air and water quality, as well as an overall insignificant increase in noise except for a "moderate" increase in areas close to the rail line with the new bridge.

"The Project is anticipated to have an overall positive impact on the regional economy by improving railroad mobility and connectivity. Further positive cumulative effects include the promotion of energy-efficient transportation options, aimed at improving regional air quality and reducing highway and airport congestion with improved rail service," according to the report.

The finding of no significant impact means officials do not have to complete a more in-depth environmental impact statement, according to the project website.

Thorne, of the MDOT, called an environmental impact statement "the most detailed study there is in terms of the environment."

Project leaders conducted their environmental assessment during the four-year study period, as they evaluated impacts in areas such as water quality and wildlife.

"All of those things were evaluated, and it was not felt that we needed to go much deeper," Thorne said.

Project leaders are also expected to work with local, state and federal agencies to minimize impacts to districts and structures in the path of the rail line, such as the historic district in downtown Havre de Grace, Rodgers Tavern in Perryville and the historic interlocking tower at Perryville's train station complex, according to the report.

The plan anticipates 2.84 acres must be acquired within the right of way to accommodate the project, including a portion of the Havre de Grace High School athletic fields, a section of Jean Roberts Park in Havre de Grace and one commercial property, National Tire & Glass Sales Inc., according to the report.

The business is at the intersection of North Adams and Warren Street, just south of the approach to the bridge.

The existing bridge is considered a bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor. High speed passenger trains traveling between New York and Washington, D.C., must slow down to cross it, as the rail line narrows from multiple tracks to just two for the bridge, plus the structure must occasionally swing open to allow marine traffic navigating the river to pass through

"The bridge's functionally obsolete design and age require increasingly frequent major rehabilitation and repairs, which result in increasing maintenance costs and conflicts with the need to maintain continuous rail operations on the corridor," according to the report.

The new bridge will be designed to eliminate those issues, as it will allow train speeds of up to 160 mph, and it will have 60 feet of vertical clearance over the river and at least 230 feet of horizontal clearance for marine traffic, according to the report.

"Without the Project, the existing bridge would continue to deteriorate and may eventually need to be taken out of service, causing a major disruption to transportation and the regional economy," the report states. "Therefore, FRA finds that the Project would have benefits and no foreseeable significant adverse impact on the quality of the human or natural environment."

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