'Bridge Lady' says span is falling down

To get the bridge near her Locust Point home fixed, Karen Johns says she'll stand naked with a sign.

No one wants it to come to that, but after nearly a decade of ignored letters, phone calls and so many appeals to politicians that she's lost count, it just might.


"I'm just afraid the bridge is going to collapse one day," she says. "I've been trying to get someone to take care of this for 10 years.

"I don't care how safe they tell me it is. I'm not in another world that I can't see what's right and what's wrong. If you walked under the bridge, you would never go over it."


Maryland politicians and inspectors have acknowledged serious problems with the 90-year-old bridge in the 1200 block of Fort Ave. - essentially the only way in or out of the heart of the Locust Point peninsula - but nothing has been done.

For years, engineers and community activists have sounded the alarm about the decaying state of America's bridges, warning of the billions of dollars in needed repairs and upgrades. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2005 that it would cost $9.4 billion per year over 20 years to adequately repair the more than 70,000 bridges nationwide that are rated "structurally deficient" - which includes the one in Locust Point.

But political, financial and bureaucratic hurdles have routinely thwarted efforts to attack the backlog in bridge repairs.

That all may have changed Wednesday, when an interstate highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Because the bridge had been faulted in inspection reports as "structurally deficient" for at least 17 years, people across the country are now second-guessing the safety of the nation's bridges, including the thousands that span Maryland's roads, waterways and railroad tracks.

Though railroad conglomerate CSX owns the Locust Point bridge, which leads to Fort McHenry, the company and the city dispute whose job it is to maintain it.

"It's going to take something like Minnesota," Johns says, "for them to say, 'Oh, maybe we should have done something.'"

Johns, 66, stands in the morning sun atop the bridge, scuffing a flip-flop along the crumbling concrete. She points down to a crack at least an inch wide, thick enough to easily see the trash-strewn tracks below. She leans over the side of the bridge, pointing to spots where the concrete has worn away to expose the structure's rusty metal skeleton.

"Can you see the metal bars through the concrete?" she asks. "Before some of these other spots were patched, the holes were big enough that kids were putting their heads through to watch the trains."


When Johns peers over the side of the bridge, she's afraid her spectacles will slide off her nose and land on the tracks below, lost like everything else that litters the tracks - a bent bicycle, a baby carriage, scores of soda bottles. The garbage gets her riled up, but nothing like the condition of the bridge itself.

The widow and grandmother knits, tends flowers and harangues elected officials about her bridge.

In 1999 Johns walked from rowhouse to rowhouse in her South Baltimore neighborhood collecting about 90 signatures on a petition urging city leaders to invest in an inspection and a cleanup.

She's written and called Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, BGE, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Sheila Dixon when she led the City Council, former city health commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, former City Councilman John L. Cain, all of her state lawmakers, and she's pretty sure she wrote to President Bush.

"The politicians," she says, "know me as The Bridge Lady.

"I sound like a chronic complainer, but it's my community. If you don't get off your duff and say something about it, nothing is going to be changed."


State Sen. George W. Della Jr. has heard Johns' appeal many times.

"She's at every South Baltimore Little League parade. She gets us when we're out campaigning; I know she's grabbed Martin [O'Malley]," he says. "She's relentless, and she's right."

O'Malley, when he was Baltimore's mayor, wrote Johns acknowledging that the bridge needed $2 million in repairs and that "we are working to develop an improvement and funding schedule."

That was more than seven years ago.

Mikulski responded in 2002 to one of Johns' many letters, calling the bridge "deplorable." The senator said she contacted John Snow, CSX's chairman and CEO, and then-Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Mikulski added: "I absolutely share your concern about this issue."

Johns saves a thick bundle of correspondence from politicians, city transportation officials and CSX engineers. She spreads the letters out in her living room like a museum display, reading bits of them aloud. In a 1999 letter, CSX's assistant chief engineer recommends that his company work with the city to replace the bridge, saying it could be justified "in terms of public safety, economic benefits and enhancement of the local neighborhood."


"The roadway slab, supported by the superstructure, is showing the first signs of distress," R.P. Garro wrote. "It just cannot handle the increased heavier truck traffic much longer. The time is right to progress this bridge replacement project."

In the most recent state inspection, the bridge scored a disappointing 36 out of 100 - anything less than 50 is a problem, officials say.

Despite the ranking and Garro's concerns, Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said last week that company inspectors found the bridge "structurally sound" last October.

Even so, Sease says CSX believes it "would be a good path to go down" if his company and the city could work together to apply for federal money to replace the bridge.

Baltimore Transportation Director Alfred H. Foxx, however, says the city's been trying to negotiate with CSX about the Fort Avenue Bridge for the six years he's worked there - and about 15 years in total.

"I've even offered to take over the bridge, if they'd contribute to the repairs. It seems like everything has dropped," he says. "Are we frustrated? Sure we are."


Foxx estimates it would cost $5.5 million to replace the bridge. Though he thinks the bridge needs "a complete overhaul," Foxx said the structure is not on the verge of collapse. If it were, he said, he wouldn't be dickering with CSX.

"If the bridge poses a problem where I think it will be unsafe, I'll just take the money from the city and go ahead and fix it," he says. "We'd work it out with CSX later."

As the city and the railroad company wrangle over money and responsibility, Johns looks at the bridge fretfully from her front window. Her local representatives share her concern.

"Am I worried about it? Yeah, yeah," says City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger. "You got school buses going over there to get to Fort McHenry and to school, you got employees of Tide Point coming and going. I mean, that bridge is used, a lot."

Della has all but had it with the situation, calling it "an accident just waiting to happen."

"I've asked the city to look at these things in the past and the comeback is all the time, 'There's no danger; they're structurally sound,'" he says. "But I'm telling ya, it doesn't look that way to me."


Johns says she's about ready to give up. She's swept glass from the bridge's sidewalks herself. She's bought paint to cover the graffiti herself.

And after a decade of complaints, she feels like she may as well be talking to herself.

"I don't want nobody to get hurt," she says. "But I hope late one night it just falls. Just so I can say, 'I told you so.'"