Taking responsibility for the 26th Street collapse [Editorial]

It's commendable that, in the face of litigation from residents of East 26th Street over this spring's collapse of a retaining wall abutting a rail line, Baltimore officials are clearly admitting to have made mistakes in their responses to the repeated complaints about the soundness of the roadway and sidewalks in recent years. The report, prepared by the departments of Public Works and Transportation, indicates that the series of inspections and repairs the city had conducted were insufficient, and it outlines new procedures Baltimore has adopted to assess other potentially faulty infrastructure more carefully. After all they've been through, the residents of that block of Charles Village deserve honest answers and more than a little bit of contrition.

Nonetheless, this saga is far from over, and the lessons to be drawn from it are incomplete. The affected residents — many of whom have retained lawyers in support of possible litigation — have good cause to argue that they are owed additional compensation for the failure of the city and CSX, the rail line's operator, to anticipate the possibility of a spectacular collapse like the one that occurred after a heavy rainfall in April. And those who live near other such structures throughout the city have good cause to worry that the heightened attention to this issue will soon fade and that the blurry lines of responsibility that contributed to the 26th Street collapse will cause other problems to slip through the cracks.

According to the city's report, residents repeatedly reported potholes, sidewalk caving, soil erosion, settlement and other problems along the area in question. Both the city and CSX responded by sending inspectors and making piecemeal repairs. None of the inspections were conducted by structural or geotechnical engineers, no engineering study was performed on the wall or sidewalk, and "no definitive determination" of why the problems were occurring was made. The city had decided before the collapse that a more extensive rehabilitation project was needed, but the $350,000 price tag for what it approved indicates just how far off officials were about the true nature of what was going wrong. Post-collapse, the cost for rebuilding the wall is expected to be about $15 million.

The weather comes in for significant blame in the city's telling, and it's safe to assume that a relatively cold and snowy winter combined with the 5.45 inches of rain that fell in the immediate 48 hours before the collapse were the immediate catalysts for the landslide. But the weather was not unimaginably extreme. In fact, it's exactly the kind of thing someone who felt real responsibility for the structure might have been worrying about after all the smaller complaints of the previous year — all the more so given that in 1998 the city had conducted a major repair of a nearby wall that was constructed in the same way at the same time. As the report notes, "This may be an indication of historic problems with how the structure was built, designed and operated."

All this adds up to two things. First, the affected residents, whose lives have been thrown into chaos for months, can make a very strong argument that this calamity could have been avoided. The city paid to put them up in hotels, but that doesn't begin to compensate them for what they have been through. Given the terrifying nature of the collapse — indeed, it's a miracle that nobody was killed — and the now well documented record of failures to take residents' concerns sufficiently seriously beforehand, the city and CSX would do well to come to a settlement rather than take their chances with a jury.

The second conclusion to draw is that the lack of clear accountability for the structure by either the city or CSX was almost certainly a contributory factor in what happened. The company and the city say they are communicating better about infrastructure throughout Baltimore, and that's a good thing. But ultimately, the two sides need to clarify who exactly is responsible for what. Even the responsibility for the wall that collapsed remains murky, with the city and CSX deciding to split the costs of repairs rather than try to figure it out. In that light, those living by any of the various other bits of infrastructure in Baltimore where ownership is unclear may not be all that much comforted by the promise that "the city and CSX will continue to build partnerships ... in the interest of maintaining clean, safe rail transportation corridors."

Given the urgency of the circumstances, it was probably the right thing for the city and CSX to split the costs of these repairs rather than fight it out in court. But among the lessons learned here should be that if responsibility for a structure is unclear, no one is going to act responsible for it.

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