'Bridge Lady' gets welcome news

The Baltimore Sun

After months of pressure and negotiations, railroad conglomerate CSX will pay three-quarters of the cost of replacing two of the city's most dangerous bridges, Baltimore officials announced yesterday.

And no one's happier than the Locust Point grandmother known as "The Bridge Lady," who warned this summer that she was ready to stand naked with a sign to get something done about the crumbling bridge near her home.

The move comes more than two months after the collapse of an interstate highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis sparked second-guessing nationwide over the safety of bridges spanning roads, waterways and railroad tracks.

CSX promised to pay for the design and 75 percent of the cost to reconstruct two of the neediest spans - the Fort Avenue bridge in Locust Point and the Sinclair Lane bridge in Northeast Baltimore. The city will cover the rest of the costs and assume maintenance responsibility once they are built.

"I'm just thrilled to pieces that something is going to be done," said Karen Johns, who spent the past decade writing and calling just about every politician in Maryland and whose front door features a sign stating: "Replace Bridge Now."

"I thought nobody was listening. All I'd get was shrugged shoulders. No money."

But the money is there now.

It will cost about $12 million total to fix the bridges, with the city's share capped at $3 million, said Jamie Kendrick, deputy transportation director.

CSX also agreed to dismantle the Wicomico Street bridge in Southwest Baltimore, which has been closed for more than a decade.

After the Minnesota collapse and upon realizing that a number of CSX bridges in Baltimore scored less than 50 percent on recent inspections, Mayor Sheila Dixon made bridge repairs a "top priority." Bridges rated that low should be replaced or have major rehabilitation, according to federal guidelines.

The Fort Avenue bridge scored 36 out of 100 on its most recent inspection and Sinclair Lane scored about 50. Other flawed spans cited in August were along Sisson Street, Wicomico Street, Harford Road and Greenmount Avenue.

Although CSX owns the bridges, the company and the city disagreed for years over who was responsible for their upkeep.

After the Minnesota bridge collapse, Johns restated her case and politicians began pressuring CSX to fix Baltimore's bridges before a tragedy occurred.

"It seems they were dragging their feet for a while, and I think they realized the city became very impatient," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said yesterday. "I know I was pushing, and Senator [Barbara A.] Mikulski was pushing for them to do the right thing. ... I think it's important we get this done and get it done as fast as we can."

Cummings said he would try to help CSX get federal funds for the repairs. But if the federal money doesn't come through by July 1, 2009, which is when the railroad company expects design work to be complete, CSX will begin construction anyway.

Jason French, CSX's director of public affairs for Maryland and Delaware, said the company came to the table in August willing to share responsibility. After a final meeting last week, the parties had a deal.

"We decided we weren't going to fight about the ownership question," he said. "We were going to spend money on bridges, not lawyers."

Baltimore and CSX recently have had something of a contentious relationship. For 4 1/2 years after a train derailment and fire in the Howard Street tunnel, they disagreed about who was responsible - eventually settling for CSX to pay $2 million to the city to help defray costs.

Kendrick and French said the sides would resume negotiations next month to figure out how to deal with Baltimore's remaining flawed bridges.

"Everybody's punted on this issue for many, many years, and now we're going to get it done," Kendrick said.

To enable engineers to prepare the new bridge's design, parking on the Fort Avenue bridge will be restricted over the next few months.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., who along with Del. Brian K. McHale appealed to CSX officials for help, called it "sort of amazing" that the railroad company finally came through.

He said that without the confluence of the Minnesota collapse and Johns' persistence, it's doubtful anything would have happened.

"It was brought about by the bridge collapse out in Minnesota," he said. "That's what drove everyone to come together to address our constituent's continued cry that this bridge is not safe."

But Johns isn't letting anyone off the hook just yet. Not until construction workers start kicking some dust onto her potted plants.

"'Til the bridge is up, I'm going to keep fighting," she said. "Proof's in the pudding."


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