For weeks, David McIntyre and other Halethorpe residents hassled the Maryland Department of Transportation officials for answers: Why was the Washington Boulevard bridge still closed for traffic if the construction equipment was long gone?
The answers from the state transportation officials fell short, he said. As it turned out, so did the bridge.
The bridge is 1 ¼ inches lower than what is required by CSX Transportation, which has trains that run underneath it, according to an email on April 19 from the transportation department to residents. A CSX public projects manual from May of this year requires new overhead bridges to have a minimum 23-foot vertical clearance “above top of rail.”
“The bridge is structurally sound, but CSX clearance requirements must be met for the tracks below, and a direction forward is being discussed and should be finalized shortly,” the email read.
McIntyre said he was left with even more questions after the missive to residents. Was the contractor or the state responsible for the mistake? How much money above the original $28.9 million will the state have to spend to raise the bridge?
“We really don’t know what’s going on,” McIntyre said. Meanwhile, he added, the construction has disrupted traffic patterns for years, at times forcing drivers into inconvenient detours.
A second email from the department to the community on May 22 said the state and CSX are 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.”
The department declined to answer the community residents about how the error happened and who was responsible, adding that the state and the contractor “have agreed to focus their efforts on solving the issue so that the project can be completed.”
The transportation department’s State Highway Administration said Monday in a statement that they are working with CSX “to address the requirements for clearance needed to accommodate the rail system that runs under the bridge.”
McIntyre and other community residents are calling for more transparency from state officials as the six-years-in-the-making project to replace the overhead bridge has now been delayed to sometime between the winter of 2023 and spring of 2024. The state began repairing the Washington Boulevard bridge in Halethorpe in 2018 and it was then slated to be completed by the summer of 2021.
“We anticipate the current pattern of traffic will remain in place for about six months until the bridge concrete closure pour, asphalt paving of the approaches is completed, and the final striping configuration is implemented,” according to the transportation department email from April.
About two months ago, residents noticed the construction equipment left the bridge “abruptly,” while access to the bridge remained closed, said Michael McAuliffe, president of the Halethorpe Improvement Association. It took community residents several emails in the ensuing weeks to get an explanation from the state, McAuliffe said.
There has been “no accountability” from the state, said Kyle Carruthers, a civil engineer who specializes in bridge and structural engineering. The state will likely have to raise the bridge 2 to 3 inches, he added. It’s doable and less expensive than if the state were to completely rebuild the bridge.
“But especially with a new construction bridge like this, to have this sort of issue before it even opens. It’s kind of embarrassing,” said Carruthers, who lives in the Halethorpe area.
“Either way you look at it, I think it falls on SHA [State Highway Administration] for either approving plans that were incorrect or for not getting more clearance in the plans that they approved,” he added.