The Oak Street Bridge might be closed for years, Mayor Gary McCarthy said Tuesday, a month after he ordered an emergency closure.
The severity of the situation is just being discovered now. McCarthy said the bridge might need to be entirely replaced — a process that could take three years and cost millions of dollars.
The railroad whose tracks run below the bridge is responsible for its maintenance, but CSX and Amtrak are arguing over which entity must foot the bill.
An email to the city from the state Department of Transportation said that the DOT had notified Amtrak that the bridge needs repair due to its badly deteriorated steel piers.
Amtrak’s response, according to the email, was that it was CSX’s responsibility. So the DOT notified CSX.
“They said it is now Amtrak’s responsibility,” the DOT email said.
City Director of Operations William Winkler added that he sees this regularly when property involves the railroads.
“Just determining who’s responsible will take a lot of legal work,” he said.
McCarthy said he could not wait for the railroads to come to a conclusion on the matter.
“Their trains move fast but their administration moves slow,” he said.
So he is trying to get a grant to cover the cost of studying the bridge, which was built in 1937. He wants to know what can be done to repair it and whether it must be replaced.
“Is it a $1 million job? Is it a $5 million job?” McCarthy said. “We’re just looking at different options at this point.”
Once he knows all of the options — and their cost — he plans to apply for state or federal funding.
“The optimum becomes the city might have to pay 5 percent,” the mayor said.
At the same time, city officials will negotiate with the railroad for funding, he said.
Winkler added that the city simply can’t afford the project on its own.
“We don’t have the money to replace that structure. If we did, we’d probably replace it and settle our legal issues with the railroad later,” he said. “But that’s out of the question.”
Under normal circumstances, the city would have to pay for some of the work if the bridge had to be replaced. Winkler said he would expect the railroad to pay for the bridge supports — the legs and base area — while the city would pay for the area on which people walk and drive.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” he said. “Technically, that’s the way it should be. But the railroad seems to not accept that.”
Even if McCarthy can get answers soon, it looks like the bridge could be closed for years.
If the bridge must be replaced, designing a new bridge could take a year. Then contractors will demolish the old one and build a new one.
“It could be a two- or three-year project,” he said.
The bridge was widely used by a neighborhood that is cut off on two sides by railroad tracks. Now, traffic sometimes backs up for many blocks as those residents take a mile-long detour to get to the rest of the city.
Winkler said he’s heard many complaints.
“I can understand the frustration,” he said, describing the bridge as a “vital link” to the Bellevue neighborhood. “But indigestion from traffic is better than risking safety going across that bridge.”