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New Amtrak bridge in Havre de Grace: 10 years, $1.1 billion

In about 10 years, at a cost of more than $1 billion and after one of the biggest construction projects in Harford County history, city officials say Havre de Grace will have been transformed.

The 110-year-old Amtrak railroad bridge spanning the Susquehanna River, which bisects Havre de Grace and is a vital link carrying high speed trains up and down the country's Northeast Corridor, is on schedule for replacement.

That tentative schedule, according to one Havre de Grace resident who has been actively involved in the planning process, is for construction to begin in about five years and for the bridge replacement project to be finished about five years later.

"The landscape of our city is going to change in the next 10 years," Havre de Grace Mayor Bill Martin said at Monday night's City Council meeting, "whether we want it to or not."

"And it's going to stay that way for 125 years," Volney Ford, chair of the city's Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Advisory Board, added.

Not a lot in the construction process over the next five years will be visible to people traveling through that area, Ford told the mayor and council. That time will be spent getting the plan ready for construction.

"It takes a long time to get all your ducks in a row" for a project of this magnitude, Ford said.

While 10 years may seem far off, Ford warned there's an urgency because the preliminary planning phase, when many of the big decisions are made, is quickly nearing its end.

When asked by Martin when residents should be focused on this project and providing input, Ford said they need to do it now.

"We're in that phase right now," Ford said. "When this preliminary design is done, it's pretty much set, unless some high ranking politician gets involved."

Ford said the bridge replacement project is expected to take 10 years to complete and will cost $1.1 billion.

"Think of the 695-95 project," he said at the council meeting. "It's been 13 years and it's still going on."

In the past decade-plus, the state has completely redone the area where the Beltway, also known as I-695 and I-95 intersect.

Ford said he believes the advisory board has accomplished much, but he told the council there are still two issues to be resolved.

The first is how the bridge design will affect the main entrance to downtown from the north side where Otsego Street and Union Avenue merge.

"We believe this is the most serious issue confronting Havre de Grace," Ford said.

He said plans call for a shorter span over that main thoroughfare than is the case with the existing bridge.

The existing bridge is a "series of 200-foot long spans to the channel and 240s to Perryville," Ford said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The new bridge is planned to be a series of 170-foot long spans, for the most part, except for 160-foot long spans in downtown Havre de Grace and Perryville.

"You can get the street through there if they do 160," Ford said, but it would be far from ideal.

He and the other Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Advisory Board members have suggested alternatives.

They have asked "that the first span leaving the abutment be a traditional arch concrete beam," Ford said. "Of course, that costs more."

But it's a cost Ford and the advisory board think is well worth it.

"We wanted this same long arch span on both sides [of the river]," Ford said. "And so would Perryville."

The span is the gateway to downtown Havre de Grace, where the Susquehanna, the longest river east of the Mississippi, reaches the Chesapeake Bay, Ford said, adding it's a community with a long and rich history. Geography and history make the Havre de Grace side of the span unique.

"This bridge requires a certain amount of dignity in design," Ford, who has had a long career in architecture, design and engineering, said.

"We support the need for it, but we want it done right," he said.

The cost of replacing the bridge is just one issue; the other is that it will impact an area with a national historic designation, which creates another set of considerations.

The other concern the advisory board faces, Ford said during his update Monday night, is what the new bridge and rail alignment will mean for the smaller historic bridges and tunnels just west of the river.

There are two tunnels, at Freedom and Centennial lanes, and three bridges, spanning Stokes Street, Adams Street and Juniata streets.

There are problems with the tunnels that time and weather have created, Ford said, and modernization will force the replacement of the three street crossing bridges.

"They cannot preserve those bridges," he said. "It's impossible."

As for the tunnels, neither can be saved not only because of their condition after more than 100 years, but also because the new railroad bed above them will be much wider.

"Let's clone a new tunnel out of two tunnels," Ford suggested.

Whatever is done with those historic structures will be part of a project of historic proportions.

"This is going to be the largest construction project Havre de Grace has ever seen," City Council President Steve Gamatoria said, thanking Ford for the time and attention he has given this project.

"We will do our best to not let the citizens down," Ford replied.

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