Baltimore City

City officials still unclear on responsibility for railroad landslide

One week after the collapse of a large retaining wall between CSX Transportation railroad tracks and East 26th Street in Charles Village, city officials said they still had not determined who was responsible for the wall or who will pay the cost to repair it.

Officials said they are still poring over decades of documents, including a 1998 agreement between the city and CSX showing that, at least once in the past, they cooperated to repair retaining walls in the neighborhood.


Responsibility for last week's wall failure, which dumped half the block and eight cars onto the railroad tracks below and forced residents of 19 homes to evacuate the area, has been a key question. Repair costs could top $1 million, and residents said they had raised concerns about cracks and sinking asphalt along the street for years.

The 1998 agreement, released in response to a request from The Baltimore Sun, shows the city and the railroad split an estimated $880,000 bill for repairs to a stretch of retention walls just a couple of blocks from last week's collapse and along the same string of railroad cuts that runs parallel to East 26th Street.


CSX and city property lines intersect across the city.

The company could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Transportation Director William Johnson said at a news conference at the site Wednesday that many questions, including who should maintain the wall, remained unanswered. The mayor said she was focused on helping displaced residents, and that she directed city agencies to work quickly to find answers.

Johnson said new ground-penetrating radar testing of St. Paul and North Charles streets, which run past and perpendicular to East 26th, showed no major structural concerns, and that survey crews continue to monitor any movement on East 26th.

Radar testing would not be conclusive on East 26th, he said, because the radar waves interacting with the uneven, exposed-dirt slope of the street would yield unclear images.

Officials said they don't know how much it will cost to replace the wall and shore up the street; construction on the repairs began Monday.

They also continue to research what public works and transportation officials did to respond to dozens of service requests from the neighborhood's residents filed over the past 18 months.

One reason for the lack of answers, said Kevin Harris, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman, is that "all of the same people that you need to pull this [information] and compile it are all of the people coordinating the emergency response."


Another reason is that records from the 1990s and earlier aren't digital, and newer records — of service requests from the street and agency responses to those requests, for example — are still being pulled and studied.

Some documentation dating further back in time, including old agreements over upkeep of the wall between the city and CSX, also could have been lost, Harris said.

"The city isn't under any obligation to necessarily keep it, believe it or not, and over that time, with multiple administrations, documents get lost," he said.

The 1998 agreement, which was approved by the city Board of Estimates and CSX officials, describes the railroad-adjacent walls holding up East 26th between nearby North Calvert and Barclay streets as being "built on Railroad and City property," and their embankment as being "along and within the Railroad's right of way."

While the agreement makes clear that future maintenance of the walls would be "determined by the parties at a later date," it also serves as an example of city and CSX sharing responsibility along their property borders.

The 1998 repairs to retaining walls along the CSX cuts from Calvert Street to Barclay Street were estimated to cost $880,000 but were not in response to anything as devastating as last week's collapse. One expert said the East 26th Street repairs would easily break $1 million.


In Charles Village, Scott Weaver, chief of bridge engineering for the transportation department, said the plan was to install a series of "soldier" pilings about midway through East 26th Street strong enough to hold up the street and the homes behind them.

When that is accomplished, crews will excavate everything between the pilings and the railroad tracks, build a new concrete wall, and then backfill the space.

The contractors currently working to install the pilings are companies that had "on-call" agreements with the city to respond to emergencies, and are operating without a finalized contract under a "disaster declaration" made by the finance department, Harris said.

Invoices for their work will go to the finance department, which will then consider which pool of city funding to use in paying the costs at the close of the fiscal year. If there is a budget surplus, the expenses will be paid from that, Harris said. If there is not, the expenses will be paid from the city's rainy day fund, which stands at $253 million.

Weaver said the final repair costs remain unclear because he and the on-call engineers with Baltimore-based Whitman, Requardt and Associates "still have to finalize the design."

Harris said the city would make public new findings of its investigation. He did not set a timeline for that process.


Johnson, the transportation director, said the piling work and construction of a new retaining wall could take as little as a couple of weeks, but Rawlings-Blake said the city was sticking to the 40-day timeline for when local residents will be able to return to their homes.