City engineers and surveyors will begin more regularly inspecting infrastructure such as retaining walls and streets near railroad tracks after the collapse of a wall in Charles Village last week, officials said Friday.
The initiative will focus on structures not already covered by federal inspection mandates or state policies, which have long been in place for major bridges and overpasses, said William Johnson, director of the city's transportation department.
"We're going to have a whole different level of focus on looking at these structures on a regular basis," Johnson said. That will include reviewing "potentially vulnerable areas around the city," he said.
Residents of East 26th Street have said they asked the city for years to repair a worrisome slope and severe cracks forming along their block, which rests above and parallel to CSX Transportation railroad tracks. The retaining wall supporting the street collapsed last week, causing a landslide that dumped tons of dirt, cars, sidewalks and streetlights onto the tracks below.
Johnson said the city, intent on making sure that similar incidents don't occur, has begun dispatching crews to check on other streets. They began on Friday at two additional railroad-adjacent blocks of East 26th Street. Officials haven't said what sites would be next.
In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Baltimore and other communities across the nation are grappling with "the effects of increasingly violent and unstable weather coupled with scarce resources for infrastructure."
However, the East 26th Street collapse was "a reminder of how critical it is we all come together at every level of government to make more infrastructure investments," she said.
"I'm challenging my Administration to ask those questions and develop even more reforms beyond those already in place to prevent more incidents like this," the mayor said in the statement.
Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said in a statement Friday that the company already follows federal inspection standards.
"CSX regularly inspects its infrastructure, including tracks, roadbed, signals and other structures necessary for safe, reliable transportation. Those inspections are done consistent with federal regulations and company policies," he said. "For example, visual inspections of track and related infrastructure occur frequently."
City officials said mandated reviews are continuing, including those being conducted along bridges and streets in Mount Washington and in other areas along the Jones Falls Expressway that flooded during the same rains that contributed to the East 26th Street landslide.
As part of those reviews, which are set into motion when the National Weather Service issues a flood warning in the city, inspectors are looking at Interstate 83 over the Jones Falls, as well as at Greely Road, Newbury Street, and Kelly, Smith and Union avenues. Inspectors are also looking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge on Hanover Street, Johnson said.
"I don't have any reports of any areas of concern, but we are obviously taking a closer look at what they're finding," Johnson said.
On Friday along two blocks of East 26th Street between North Calvert and Barclay streets, the area was closed to traffic so crews could check for subsurface voids with ground-penetrating radar.
In the early afternoon, two men walked up and down the street with radar equipment strapped to a walking cart. Results of those tests were not immediately available.
Several area residents said they would be interested in the results.
Jeff Larry, who lives on the corner of East 26th Street and Guilford Avenue, said the retaining wall keeping his block above the CSX tracks was replaced about 15 years ago, but the intersection seems to have sunk since then. He thinks the front corner of his home and the sidewalk across the street might be sinking as well.
In fact, on the day of the wall collapse a couple of blocks away, Larry happened to have an inspector in his home taking a look at his foundation, he said. The inspector told him he should ask the city why his street was dipping.
Larry said he knows old houses settle, whether they are near train tracks or not, but he wonders whether "100 years of vibration" from trains rumbling along the tracks nearby had an impact on his home. Others are wondering the same thing and whether they should fear more extensive damage in the future, he said.
"We're all sort of talking about it and waiting to see what the city is going to do about it. Hopefully, due diligence is done," Larry said. "I don't know if the city or CSX have the best intentions of really keeping an eye on things this time around or not."
Nick Cornelisse, who lives across Guilford Avenue from Larry, said people in the neighborhood "in general are concerned," but he didn't know if a quick radar inspection would make a difference.
"I'm a little skeptical, because apparently they checked out the street [that collapsed] a year before," he said. City officials said they had inspected the collapsed block of East 26th Street in 2013.
Officials said they are still researching how the city responded to dozens of resident complaints from the that block over the past 18 months.
The city also pledged more inspections following a CSX derailment in the Howard Street Tunnel in 2010. At that time, CSX and city officials jointly announced a series of actions to improve safety in the tunnel.
CSX said it would improve drainage and use computer-based equipment more frequently to detect track flaws, and city and railroad officials spoke of a strong working relationship with one another to ensure safety.
In the Charles Village incident, city officials say they still have not determined who was responsible for the retaining wall and whether the city or CSX will pay the cost to repair it.