A week after the April 2014 collapse of a portion of East 26th Street in Charles Village, Baltimore officials promised to conduct routine inspections of aging infrastructure like the retaining wall that gave way under heavy rains and sent cars and trees plummeting to the railroad tracks below.
They even developed a written policy governing city inspections of the rail corridor along 26th Street after major rainstorms, high winds and flood warnings.
But in the nearly five years since the collapse displaced residents for months and took $6 million in city funds to fix, Baltimore officials have conducted just one inspection, according to records obtained through a Public Information Act request made by The Baltimore Sun after a new collapse in November.
Amid the hundreds of documents released by the city, the only inspection report was dated May 2014 — a couple weeks after the first collapse had generated national media attention.
“That’s a shame,” said Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, an organization made up of nearby residents. “They said they would be doing regular inspections. You don’t expect that ‘regular’ is going to be four years between inspections.”
A Baltimore Department of Transportation spokesman said city officials had concluded the corridor wasn’t a danger based on the one inspection and on additional reviews the city requested from Amtrak and CSX Transportation, which owns the tracks.
It was a CSX inspector who, along with concerned neighbors, called the city to report the sagging street in November, CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps said. She said the company inspects all of its tracks several times a week for any issues involving retaining walls, trees, vegetation and other possible problems that could pose a safety risk.
“That system of several inspections a week would identify any issues like that early,” she said. “Any impression that no one’s looking at these walls is not true.”
But residents say such railroad inspections aren’t enough.
Cross said the city has no right to abdicate its responsibility to ensure public safety to CSX, as the company has priorities — including preventing the disruption of rail operations — that don’t necessarily align with those of the public.
“They have an interest in making sure those tunnels aren’t collapsing onto their track beds, but the city has a broader set of interests,” Cross said. “For us, it’s not just a matter of our freight getting through. It’s really our lives that are risk.”
The city’s May 2014 inspection report states that the ground-penetrating radar used for the analysis “found anomalies along Charles Street and 26th Street that warranted further investigation to confirm that no voids are present below the roadway.” Subsequent soil testing did not find any such voids, officials said.
The city did not conduct additional inspections because the May 2014 inspection “did not find any major anomaly that would require additional inspections of the wall on East 26th Street,” said German Vigil, a city transportation spokesman.
“There are no national standards for the frequency of inspections of retaining walls,” Vigil said.
The 2014 collapse sent much of East 26th Street between St. Paul and North Charles streets down into the CSX railroad tracks below. The collapse took asphalt, sidewalk, streetlights and parked cars with it. No one was injured.
November’s partial collapse of 26th Street between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue was not as severe. The street buckled and the retaining wall lurched toward the train tracks, but the section was stabilized before a full collapse.
After the 2014 collapse, CSX split the $12 million cost of repairs with the city. The costs for the November collapse have not been announced.
Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond to a request for comment on the lack of city inspections, but Baltimore transportation director Michelle Pourciau pointed to the railroad’s monitoring. “There have been routine visual inspections of the East 26th Street retaining walls by CSX,” Pourciau said in a written statement.
Vigil said the transportation department is working to establish a new inspection program with CSX to “improve the condition assessment of the retaining walls in a coordinated effort,” he said.
“CSX will continue to do their routine inspections. We will then continue to coordinate with CSX, as we do a more comprehensive inspection of the retaining walls,” Vigil said.
He said those inspections will assist in “creating a citywide standard on monitoring and enhancing city infrastructure,” and eventually be folded into a broader tracking system for retaining walls, bridges, roads, alleys and sidewalks..
“This system will enable us to adequately prioritize and track our progress as we make essential improvements to the condition of all of the city’s physical assets,” he said.
Cross and others were not comforted by the same assurances of frequent inspections that previous transportation officials provided in 2014.
“When they tell us now that they’re going to be doing these inspections, what reason do we have to believe them this time?” he said.
Residents were told about the city’s lack of inspections during a community meeting this month after they had been demanding answers about November’s collapse and how the city would work to avoid a third incident.
“We were surprised that there hasn’t been more regular inspections,” said Miller Roberts III, president of the Harwood Community Association. “But we were also informed that there is no legal mandate for that and that the city is going to make sure there are regular inspections moving forward.”
Cross suggested the city instead create a task force to monitor such infrastructure more closely, identify problems and respond to new citizen concerns — of which there have been many since the November collapse.
People are noticing cracks in different parts of the wall, east and west,” he said.
The newly released records show that after the 2014 collapse, the city had asked CSX Transportation, Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and the Maryland Transit Administration to assist in inspecting major infrastructure along their rail lines in Baltimore.
Asked about that this week, the MTA said in a statement it “does not own anything [on East 26th Street] that would require inspection.” Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment. Amtrak said in a statement that it conducts annual inspections of all infrastructure that it controls, including bridges and tunnels, as required by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Just as many residents had previously raised alarms about the block that collapsed in 2014, they are now pointing to a new worrisome stretch of 26th Street near Barclay Street.
One of those residents is City Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents the community.
Stokes said he has sent photographs of where the railroad tracks cross under Barclay Street at 26th Street. He said the pictures show signs of possible shifting of pavement, the ground and the retaining wall.
“I’ve already sent a letter to the [Department of Transportation] to ask that they do an inspection there,” Stokes said. “I want to look at that area so we don’t have another collapse like we had recently and in 2014.”
The councilman said he believes commitments made in 2014 to conduct routine inspections may not have been passed along through changes in leadership at the transportation department. Pugh, who took office in 2016, appointed Pourciau as her new transportation director in late 2017.
Within months after Pourciau’s appointment, both of the agency’s deputy directors and other senior officials left the department, which manages a $207 million budget and a staff of more than 1,200 employees.
“I’m not making any excuses,” Stokes said. “You have to remember there was a different director over at DOT. The new one has only been here about a year.”
Roberts said city officials assured community members that an initial inspection would be conducted before another public meeting, perhaps as early as next month. That’s when city officials said they would inform the community about how frequently they believe they need to inspect the 26th Street rail corridor.
“We are calling for more inspections,” Roberts said. “To make sure we don’t find ourselves in a collapse again.”