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Deadline approaches for comments on Susquehanna rail bridge replacement

Thursday is the final day the public can give comments on the recently-completed environmental assessment for the proposed replacement of Amtrak's Susquehanna River Rail Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville.

The assessment, which was presented during a public meeting March 23 at Perryville High School, covers how the replacement of a structure that is more than a century old will affect not only natural resources but transportation networks, businesses, schools, public facilities and cultural and historical resources on both sides of the river.

Havre de Grace Planning Director Ben Martorana issued a reminder of the Thursday deadline during a City Council meeting Monday evening.

People can submit comments online at http://www.susrailbridge.com, where a copy of the assessment is available. Hard copies of the document are available at library branches in Havre de Grace and Perryville, along with Havre de Grace City Hall, Perryville Town Hall, the Cecil County planning and zoning department in Elkton and the Harford County planning and zoning department in Bel Air, according to the website.

The design of the bridge is a major concern for Havre de Grace officials, as well as citizens who have been working with Amtrak and Maryland Department of Transportation representatives during the past four years as the agencies seek public input, develop the environmental assessment, select a route and release preliminary designs.

Havre de Grace representatives are concerned the proposed design would constrict access to downtown when people make the sharp right turn from Otsego Street onto North Union Avenue. There is currently enough space between the support pylons on either side of Union for sidewalks and grassy areas, but that space would be narrowed with the proposed design.

The design, which is available on the project website, shows a support pylon on the east side of Union at the edge of the street.

"It's not going to look like it is today," Mayor Bill Martin said during Monday's council meeting. "It's going to be very obstructed."

Martorana noted the city hired an engineering firm, which affirmed the city's view that the bridge could be designed to allow more space for a gateway to downtown.

"We asked for consideration as the process moves to the next phase, to especially consider our point of view on the impact of the appearance of the new design on the gateway to Havre de Grace and maintaining the historic elements and the traditional designs that we feel are necessary to accommodate a structure of this size," he told city officials.

The current two-track bridge was built in 1906 and handles freight and passenger rail traffic; it would be demolished to make way for two spans with two tracks each. That would relieve the bottleneck created by the bridge along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line – the route narrows from four tracks to two on the approach to the bridge in Perryville, according to a PowerPoint presentation posted on the project website.

"There is still a lot of work to be done on the actual design," Martorana said.

It could take 10 to 12 years to design and build the bridge at a cost of more than $1 billion, and that schedule depends on the availability of funding – the majority would come from the federal government.

Martin praised City Council members for appropriating funds to hire the firm which advised Amtrak engineers that "you can make a bridge with longer spans and open up our gateway and our city on the land, the shore side."

He said project leaders have taken the engineering firm's recommendations under advisement.

The mayor encouraged people to make their voices heard about the project.

"What they build will probably be here another 100 years, so if you don't like it, it's not like you can wait it out," he said.

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