In case you were wondering what happened to the bridge on Washington Boulevard that was too short, delaying its opening long after construction ended, we’ll give it to you straight — just like the bridge ended up being.
An investigation that began late last year at the request of the Maryland Department of Transportation found the contractor, Lane Construction, did not follow state designs that would have accommodated the curvature of Clarke Boulevard. The bridge, it turns out, is too short and too straight.
The cause of the bridge mishap has been a mystery to residents in nearby neighborhoods, who had been asking state officials what was going on with little response. The bridge is 1 1/4 inches lower than what is required by CSX Transportation, which has trains that run underneath it. A CSX public projects manual from May requires new overhead bridges to have a minimum 23-foot vertical clearance “above top of rail.”
So how did this construction quagmire happen? The state pointed to contractor Lane Construction, which did not return numerous requests from The Banner for comment.
The state said the investigation is ongoing and their primary focus is “the completion of the project.”
The Banner interviewed officials from the transportation department and got public records and emails to show what happened.
Changes in the design of the bridge, including one made by Lane Construction and their subcontractors without state knowledge, caused the structure to weigh more than was previously planned, transportation officials said. Concrete for a sidewalk that was added to the bridge later in the process and widening of the bridge contributed to it ending up too short, they said.
State Highway Administration officials said they hired an independent engineering firm to survey the site late last year after Lane Construction, which began repairs on the bridge over the rail line in Halethorpe in 2018, notified them in October that the bridge did not meet CSX Transportation’s clearance standards. It was slated to be completed in the summer of 2021 and it has now been delayed to winter of 2024.
After confirming that the bridge was not tall enough, the surveyor began to look over other parts of the bridge to determine what exactly happened, said John Narer, a project manager within the State Highway Administration. It quickly became clear that, he said, “Something was definitely wrong.”
State officials designed the bridge so that it would accommodate the curvature of the intersection of the bridge with Clarke Boulevard. Instead of following the curvature, the contractor straightened the bridge, Narer said.
“It’s easier to form a straight line as opposed to forming a curved line when you are forming for concrete,” Narer added. “That curvature and the additional weight from bracing a straight line added additional deflection of the branch and caused us to go below 23 feet.”
Asked what led the contractor to not follow the state design, Maurice Agostino, director of the office of structures, said he “can only speculate” and would not be “answering for the contractor.”
State officials stressed they did not know the bridge had been built “incorrectly along the straight lines” until they sent out an independent surveyor to check the clearance. Neither Agostino nor Narer provided details on why the error was only noticed near the bridge’s completion.
Charles Gischlar, deputy director of communications for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said contractors straightened the bridge “by adding additional concrete to widen a portion of the bridge.”
Another factor that led the structure to be heavier was the addition of the sidewalk. The bridge was not originally designed to be open to pedestrians, but the state added a 5-foot concrete sidewalk at the request of Guinness Brewery, which opened a facility in Halethorpe in 2020 that significantly increased pedestrian traffic.
Agostino and Narer declined to give details on possible solutions to fix the bridge or what it might cost. An email from the transportation department to Halethorpe residents in May said the state and CSX were considering raising the bridge.
“A less impactful solution that is currently being pursued involves addressing drainage issues along the CSX tracks under the bridge,” the email read. “By improving the drainage along the tracks, CSX would not need to raise the tracks in the future which would reduce sub-standard vertical clearance even more.”
Another email from the transportation department in May said “a direction forward is being discussed and should be finalized shortly,” and the project is currently slated to be completed by winter of 2024. As of late July, the state is still working with CSX and are “close” to coming up with a resolution, Agostino said. When pressed for a timeline, he said he was “not gonna go beyond that.”
State officials also said it is still being determined who will pay for the changes in the project and the overall cost. If the state and the contractor can’t come to a consensus, the contractor has the right to file a claim and go to the Board of Appeals, Agostino said. He added that there’s “nothing but speculation at this point.”
“We all have our point of view,” Agostino said. “The contractor will have their point of view.”