The Herald of Everett, Washington
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Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Railroad mum on repairs to Everett's Broadway Bridge

The Broadway Bridge needs replacing, and Everett officials believe the railroad bears part of the responsibility.

  • Courtesy: Everett Public Library
The Broadway railroad bridge was built in the early 1900s. In 1931, it was modified to handle automobiles. The old wo...

    Courtesy: Everett Public Library The Broadway railroad bridge was built in the early 1900s. In 1931, it was modified to handle automobiles. The old wooden Labor Temple on Lombard is partially visible on the right below the railcar on the bridge.

EVERETT -- The city can't wait for the railroad to replace a deteriorating bridge.
So it's moving forward with building a new one -- even if taxpayers have to pick up part of the bill.
The city needs to hear back from Burlington Northern Sante Fe by March about whether it will help pay to replace Broadway Bridge, said Mayor Ray Stephanson.
"We've made the request," he said. "We've explained our sense of urgency. We need their answer. Based on that response, we will determine if we need to elevate that request."
If the city isn't getting the desired response, the mayor said he would take the matter to the state's congressional leaders.
The century-old bridge is in dire need of replacement. The steel supports are badly corroded. A federal bridge inventory describes the bridge's substructure as in "serious condition."
Although a city engineer said it's safe for cars to drive on the bridge now, that won't be the case forever. The city has banned parking on the bridge and placed load restrictions on trucks that use it.
The city wants to begin construction by early 2013 and may risk losing federal dollars if the project doesn't progress.
The estimated cost to replace the bridge is more than $9 million. The city secured $8 million from the federal government toward the project. What's at stake is who will pay the remaining $1.15 million.
The city has asked the railroad to pay for about half that amount and offered to take over ownership of the new bridge.
So far, the railroad hasn't responded to the offer. A spokesman for Burlington Northern Sante Fe said the matter was under review and provided no further comment.
City officials suspect that's because the railroad has little to gain by replacing the bridge since its tracks run underneath. People who live and work in Everett do: Some 30,000 drivers cross the bridge daily.
"The railroad doesn't care whether the bridge is there or not," the mayor said. "The bridge is there for the public value of moving goods and services."
In 1900, the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway signed a contract with the city promising to build the Broadway Bridge and several others in exchange for the right to bring its tracks through town. That contract calls for the bridges to be "forever maintained by the Railway Company" and its successors.
City officials believe that the railroad still owns Broadway Bridge and is responsible for maintaining it. However, records indicate the city hasn't had much luck getting the railroad to hold up its end of the bargain.
On file with the city are a series of letters dating back decades that document continued attempts by the state and the city to get the railroad to do maintenance work on the bridge.
In 1965, state officials were noticing corrosion under the Broadway Bridge and recommending the railroad paint it and do other maintenance work. Two decades later, the state was still asking for the railroad to paint the bridge. By 1985, a state worker noted that the bridge had deteriorated to "complete holes through webs, beams and connection plates."
It's not clear from those records what maintenance the railroad may have performed over the years. The federal government requires railroads to inspect their bridges but those reports are not available to the public.
In the 1980s, three other bridges in Everett built by the railroad under the same agreement began to exhibit serious structural problems. One bridge under Lombard Avenue was in such bad shape that the wheels of a parked car fell through the deck. For a time, lane closures and load restrictions on those bridges sent drivers zigzagging over numerous detours downtown.
Just like today, city officials attempted to get the railroad to help pay for a fix on the Hewitt, Lombard and Oakes bridges. The late Mayor Bill Moore became so frustrated, he threatened to block train traffic by parking police cars and fire trucks on top of the tracks.
That threat did get the railroad to the negotiating table. It would take several more years before the bridges were actually replaced. The city ended up paying for most of the work using federal bridge replacement dollars. The city now owns those bridges.
In 1986, the City Council created a city law that was supposed to force the railroad to keep its bridges and other crossings up to basic standards. The law allows the mayor to submit a complaint to the council that triggers a public hearing. If the railroad isn't meeting its obligations, the law says fines up to $1,000 a day may be imposed.
The mayor has not filed such a complaint. Instead, Stephanson is banking on the railroad's goodwill. He is hopeful the railroad will be "a good corporate citizen."
He said in past years the railroad has tried to work with the community when problems come up. For instance, in the 1990s, many people in the north end of town complained about railroad cars clanging together loudly at all hours. Recently, that complaint came up again and the railroad has worked on reducing the noise.
Mike Cowles is a retired manager of public projects for BNSF. He's now working on the Broadway Bridge replacement project as part of a team of consultants hired by the city.
Coming to an agreement with the railroad is one of the challenges of the project, along with its design, he said. The railroad is generally cooperative, but it's also a business with its own objectives.
"I believe eventually (the city) will get a good outcome," he said.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com
Story tags » EverettRoad Repair

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