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Higher, realigned Amtrak bridge, new station recommended by Havre de Grace citizens panel

A citizens advisory group formed in Havre de Grace to review and monitor the potential replacement of Amtrak's Susquehanna River railroad bridge is recommending that any new span, or spans, be higher and that the future bridge's abutment be moved farther west from where the existing 108-year-old bridge crosses into the city.

Other recommendations include realigning waterfront streets and intersections impacted by the existing bridge and building a commuter rail station to serve the city.

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The panel's recommendations, proposed in the form of six advisory bulletins, were presented to the mayor and city council Monday evening. The council voted 5-0 to give Mayor Wayne Dougherty the authority to pursue them with Amtrak.

"All of that is being forwarded to Amtrak," the mayor said.

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The board recommended that, in the likely event twin two-track bridges are built, they "should be of identical height and architecture, and should be aligned as closely to each other as possible to give the appearance of one bridge."

Other architectural suggestions include open bridge decks, support piers that are "taller, more slender and spaced farther apart" than the current supports, painting the bridges and towers with a "light metallic color" which would "produce a distinctive daytime natural glow from great distances" and that the overhead electric wires, or "catenary system," used to power the trains be hung from "architecturally graceful solid-form towers."

"This will do much to reduce the visual effect of catenary 'clutter' while emphasizing the towers as central architectural features of the bridge complex," according to the board's report, which also states that "both bridges should be carried on the same elongated pier structures to emphasize the appearance of 'one bridge' and to better resist river-borne collisions."

The board addressed a number of proposals for the area where the existing bridge crosses from the river's edge to the embankment that carries the railroad tracks across another mile of the city

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It was recommended that the bridge's western abutment be moved farther west than that of the existing bridge, beyond Freedom Lane, which also would eliminate the existing Freedom Lane underpass. The underpasses for Centennial Lane and Adams Street, which are not heavily used, would then be closed and the two at Stokes and Juniata streets, which are major thoroughfares, would be kept open.

One result of those recommendations would be to allow realignment of the intersection of Water and Otsego streets with Union Avenue and St. John Street. This also would permit some westward expansion of Jean Roberts and David Craig parks on the north and south sides of the bridge, respectively, the panel said.

It was also recommended that a retaining wall be built along the embankment in heavily used areas such as next to the high school's James R. Harris Stadium and adjacent school properties.

The final recommendation involves building a rail commuter station between Stokes Street and Centennial Lane, as close to the downtown district as possible. Residents of Havre de Grace, which has not had a rail stop in decades, have to use stations in either neighboring Perryville or Aberdeen if they want to ride on MARC's Penn commuter line.

The mayor and council members praised the advisory board members for their quick work and extensive research.

"The advisory board has moved very swiftly and has provided some very diligent considerations," Councilman Steve Gamatoria, the council's liaison to the board, said.

"There was a lot of thought, a lot of discussion," Councilman Fred Cullum said. "A lot went into [the bulletins], and I think there's some good suggestions and good advisories for the city."

Dougherty said board members will continue to meet as needed with members of Amtrak's bridge development team.

The project is still in the early stages of planning and public outreach, and Amtrak officials have not decided whether they will rehabilitate the current bridge or build a new span.

The railroad's planners have raised the possibility of building a wider span and relocating parts of the four-track main line between the bridge and the city's west side. The existing bridge is only wide enough for two tracks, which has long posed problems for Amtrak's fast intercity passenger trains, which share the line with MARC commuter trains and Norfolk Southern freights.

Amtrak's planners have said the concept of building twin, adjacent bridges would avoid disrupting traffic on the nation's busiest passenger railroad while construction is in progress, as well as facilitate adding more tracks if it becomes necessary in the future.

An environmental assessment is scheduled to be published during the summer of 2015, and preliminary engineering, environmental studies and grant applications will take place through 2016 and 2017. Amtrak maintains a website on the project at www.susrailbridge.com.

Whatever form the future bridge takes, "[it] will dominate the downtown and waterfront vista for the next century or more and will become iconic of Havre de Grace as a tourist and entertainment center," the citizens advisory group wrote.

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