Philadelphia and CSX railroad collide over who pays to fix a bridge

As if city life in Southwest Philadelphia wasn’t tough enough, along comes one of the wealthiest railroad companies in the country, offering to tear down a decaying bridge and transform the busy street in front of your business into a permanent cul-de-sac.

The same goes for Bill Janes and other residents of Cemetery Avenue, where CSX Transportation wants to remove a 60-year-old urban bridge carrying vehicles and pedestrians on its twin freight lines. CSXT, which is responsible for maintaining the span, says the Cemetery Avenue bridge is not needed. He asked the state to allow him to dismantle the bridge and abolish the crossing forever.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Janes, 61, who owns several properties on Cemetery Avenue, including an auto repair garage, which he said would lose customers if the street becomes a dead end. “I’m surprised they want to shut it down. There is so much traffic here.

CSXT filed the application in 2019 with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which has jurisdiction over the 8,785 level crossings in Pennsylvania, including about 640 operating public level crossings in Philadelphia. The railroad’s request received little public attention, and Janes only learned of CSXT’s proposal because it cornered some city officials who were inspecting the span a year ago. But the case quietly generated an astonishing volume of testimony, engineering reports and rebuttals before the PUC.

“It was a very important fight for the city,” said Darin L. Gatti, chief engineer for the Philadelphia Streets Department. He said the city is engaged in an ongoing jurisdictional battle with the railroads over maintenance of their property, and is sometimes losing. In this case, he felt the city had a strong case and decided to keep its arguments within the legal realm of PUC proceedings rather than inflame the community.

“We weren’t going to give in lightly because the railroad doesn’t want to maintain it anymore,” he said.

At the root is a debate that sometimes surges into public opinion when aging infrastructure fails, such as the recent bridge collapse in Pittsburgh. Who pays for maintenance? The railroad, which has maintained a bridge there since 1886, when horse-drawn carriages ferried traffic to the nearby Mount Moriah cemetery, says the bridge is no longer needed in a modern world and suggests the traffic could find alternate routes nearby. If the city benefits from the structure, he says, then the city must maintain it.

READ MORE: How the Philadelphia area will benefit from Biden’s infrastructure bill

“CSXT is seeking to remove this bridge because it has failed to maintain its upkeep and no longer wants to pay for its years of neglect,” Assistant City Attorney James C. Kellett wrote last year. , in a memoir at the PUC. The bridge is a “vital link in the local road network” and its closure would affect emergency responders, residents “and anyone who regularly passes through the area,” Kellett wrote.

Philadelphia Police Lt. Joseph Ruff said the Cemetery Avenue Bridge was the primary gateway for 4,500 police calls in 2020, including 195 calls for “high level crimes such as murder , rape, aggravated assault and arson, among others”. Gatti testified that fire trucks, ambulances and garbage trucks could not turn around in dead ends.

Around 5,400 motorists now use the bridge every day and are expected to find alternative routes. Pedestrians should take a half-mile detour to the nearest bridge at 65th Street. The city recommends replacing the bridge, which it says would cost $5 million.

On Feb. 3, the PUC agreed with the city, whose position was broadly endorsed in a decision recommended last year by Administrative Judge Darlene Heep. She assigned responsibility for bridge repairs to the railroad and said the city was responsible for repairing the approaches to the bridge, which are also in poor condition.

Neither CSXT, which is based in Jacksonville, Fla., nor its attorney in Harrisburg responded to questions about whether the railroad plans to appeal the decision. CSXT, which has 827 crossings in operation in Pennsylvania, including 120 in Philadelphia, was the nation’s fourth-largest rail carrier in 2020, with $10.6 billion in revenue and $2.8 billion in profit. Its share price has more than doubled in five years.

Railroads criss-crossing Pennsylvania are asking to remove about a dozen crossings each year, said PUC press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen. Applications are generally not controversial. Most railroad crossings in Pennsylvania are “at-grade” crossings, where vehicles and the railroad track travel at the same level. But most crossings in densely developed Philadelphia are either above or below ground level, involving a bridge carrying vehicles on the railroad or a span carrying the railroad on the roadway.

READ MORE: A Pittsburgh bridge collapsed just before President Biden arrived in town to talk infrastructure

Two years ago, the PUC approved CSXT’s proposal to remove the Pine Street Bridge crossing the same rail line in the borough of Darby, about 1.8 miles southwest of Cemetery Avenue . According to a state inspector’s report, the bridge was at risk of “imminent failure,” and CSXT estimated it would cost $25 million or more to replace.

Opponents of the Cemetery Avenue controversy cited a 2007 case where Norfolk Southern sought to abolish a railroad crossing on 11th Avenue in North Lebanon, east of Harrisburg, which had been the site of several accidents with vehicles. The PUC rejected the railroad’s request to abolish the crossing, but ordered the local government to install and maintain crossing barriers because it was responsible for a troublesome traffic pattern that had contributed to the security issue. The Commonwealth Court upheld the PUC’s decision.

In the case of Philadelphia, the city unearthed historical documents showing Cemetery Avenue predated the railroad, which a predecessor company to CSXT, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, built in 1886 to extend service from Maryland to Philadelphia. . At the time, the city council approved B&O’s plan to build its line through the city, with a terminal at 24th and Chestnut Streets which was demolished in 1963. But the railroad was obligated to maintain the crossings level, as they were installed for the convenience of the railroad.

The railroad has rebuilt the Cemetery Avenue Bridge twice: in 1921 and most recently in 1961, after it was destroyed in a derailment. During the 1961 reconstruction, B&O recommitted to maintaining the structure.

The bridge over Cemetery Avenue resembles most of Philadelphia’s approximately 500 railroad crossings—most of the city’s 638 public crossings involve a bridge rather than a level crossing. CSXT has 120 operational crossings in the city, all but 13 of which involve bridges, according to a state database. (SEPTA, with 223 crossings, has the most in Philadelphia.)

The cemetery avenue bridge does not draw attention to itself. It is a single-span steel girder bridge, 88 feet long and 48.3 feet wide with a curb-to-curb width of 30 feet. There are walkways on each side. The pedestrian guardrails, which are not original, are constructed of wood and are open at the bottom, allowing the free passage of large objects or living beings to the tracks more than 20 feet below.

Gatti, the city engineer, said he was shocked when he first visited the Cemetery Avenue Bridge and saw the wooden pedestrian railing that replaced the original metal structure. Large openings posed a safety risk by any standard, he said. “He does not respect any code.”

The bridge is decorated with graffiti and littered with rubbish and has never been repainted since its construction. This is another point of contention between the city and CSXT.

CSXT says it has spent more than $600,000 since 2015 to repair the bridge, including fixing corrosion and punctures in the vertical steel walls separating vehicles from pedestrians. He replaced the floor system components that were damaged and bent underneath by a train strike. He also repaired part of the concrete deck.

Upon completion, CSXT engineers informed the city that the bridge no longer required a 14-ton load limit, but the city still posted signs prohibiting heavy trucks. This too is a point of contention.

A confidential inspection report revealed further flaws, many of which are blacked out in the public version filed with the PUC. When the commission’s order becomes final — and it could take months or years if CSXT appeals — the railroad will have seven days to address the highest repair priorities and six months to resolve others. problems.

The city has two months after the completion of CSXT work to repair the approaches to the bridge. The city said it is committed to fulfilling its responsibilities as soon as possible.

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