Bit by bit, the project to replace Amtrak's century-old Susquehanna River Rail Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville is taking shape, although it could be at least five more years until construction begins, according to community leaders and railroad officials involved in the project.
"It has not been determined," Craig Rolwood, of Amtrak, said regarding a construction start date during a recent community forum on the project held in Havre de Grace last week. Organizers estimated 91 people attended the three-hour forum.
"The earliest that construction could start would probably be 2020, but it's funding-dependent," Rolwood said.
Rolwood, who is project director for structures design with Amtrak, attended the forum held March 26 at the Havre de Grace Community Center. Representatives of the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration also attended.
The forum was the latest opportunity for the public to interact with rail officials and members of the eight-person Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Advisory Board, which is made up of people from Cecil and Harford counties with backgrounds in railroads, general transportation, emergency services and marine traffic. The board was assembled by Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty.
The board has been providing community input to the various state, local and federal agencies involved in the project.
Maryland and federal transportation officials, along with Amtrak officials, are in the midst of a four-year process of gathering public input, conducting an environmental assessment and putting together preliminary engineering designs. That process is scheduled to last through 2017.
The federal government subsidized intercity passenger rail system is considering replacing the current two-track bridge, which was built in 1906 and is 4,154 feet long, with two bridges that will each have with two tracks.
The bridge, which spans the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville, is part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which serves the Northeastern United States.
"That's important for Amtrak and Acela [Express] coming from Boston to D.C.," Jacqueline Thorne, project manager with the Maryland Department of Transportation, said.
Rolwood said the structure handles 88 Amtrak intercity and 13 MARC commuter passenger trains each day, plus seven to 10 freight trains operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad.
The existing rail line would have to be realigned to connect to the new bridges, and display boards were posted in the community center showing how officials narrowed the number of potential routes from 18 to nine to three.
The three potential routes, which are in the vicinity of the current bridge, would allow trains to travel up to 160 mph across the river, according to the display.
Four potential designs for the new bridges are under consideration, including a delta/arch, girder/arch, truss/truss and girder/truss configuration.
Thorne stressed that the current bridge is aging, and replacing it will "ensure that we can accommodate more capacity."
She said project team members have issued an "alternative retained for design study" report, which includes the potential routes and bridge configurations, and those findings were first presented to the public during a forum at Havre de Grace High School in December.
"We're still welcoming comments, suggestions," Thorne said.
According to Amtrak, the bridge was last inspected in 2013 and "the results of the inspection indicated the bridge is structurally safe, though the existing bridge is nearing the end of it's useful life."
Members of the advisory board have put forth a number of ideas about the bridge and projects for the communities on either side, such as a commuter rail station in Havre de Grace.
Advisory board member Jeff Andrews, who is the general manager of Tidewater Marina in Havre de Grace and is providing expertise on how the new bridges could mesh with boat traffic on the river, talked about the potential for building a rail station in Havre de Grace.
Andrews chatted with North East resident John Ford, who grew up in Perryville, about the station, which could be built near Otsego Street where the current rail line crosses Centennial Lane.
"This is serious economic impact," Andrews said.
He noted that a Havre de Grace station would not replace the existing commuter stations in Aberdeen and Perryville but would "relieve the burden" on them.
Ford said he grew up on the Perry Point VA Medical Center property, as his parents worked at the hospital, and they lived in a house on the campus. The Perryville side of the bridge is near the Perry Point complex.
Ford said he grew up hearing and seeing the trains, and he remembers seeing the funeral train bearing the body of Attorney General and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968.
"It's been there so long," he said of the bridge. "It's been there my entire life; it's just one of those things you take for granted."
Several members of the public encouraged planners to develop a mechanism for pedestrians and cyclists to get across the river via the rail bridges.
Eric Fisher, founder and advocacy facilitator for the Harford Cycling Alliance, said there are no bike and pedestrian options on the current bridge, and when he and members of his group want to cross to and from Harford and Cecil now, they must ride across the Conowingo Dam north of the bridge.
"We have a vested interest in a pedestrian component," Fisher said. "Whatever happens here, we want to make sure the citizens are able to get from Havre de Grace to Perryville."
"I hope all of you had a chance to ask 1,000 questions," Volney Ford, who is chairman of the advisory board and chairman of the Havre de Grace Planning Commission, told participants.