Railroad bridge work still stalled on College Street

More than two years ago someone drove through the metal railing on one side of the College Street bridge, leaving a vehicle-wide gap above the Norfolk Southern railroad track.

The hole is temporarily plugged by a plastic construction barrier, but there’s still no resolution on when it will be fixed or even whose responsibility that is.

“It’s a situation that’s just persisted now for years,” said Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger, who lives nearby. “At some point, sooner rather than later, there has to be some sort of resolution.”

At a recent meeting, Schlesinger, whose commission district includes the site, asked Macon-Bibb County Engineer David Fortson about the status of the bridge, which is near Oglethorpe Street and Appleton Lane.

The accident that sparked the problem took place sometime in 2012, Fortson said.

“Amazingly, no one was seriously injured, from what I understand,” he said via email. Previous strikes had damaged the railing before, and that earlier damage was fixed by government workers or people hired by the government, Fortson said.

Engineering staff looked at repairing only the rail in August or September of 2012.

“We later decided to abandon that effort in favor of a more comprehensive solution,” Fortson said. That meant wrangling with the railroad, which is ongoing.

A lot of research has gone into who owns the bridge and has responsibility for maintaining it, said Rick Harris, Norfolk Southern spokesman for Georgia.

There’s usually a longstanding agreement on the subject for each such bridge. But none was found for this one, so the government and the railroad are working one out now, he said.

That’s what is holding up payment for at least some of the repair work, Harris said.

“Norfolk Southern and Macon-Bibb County government are presently negotiating terms of a draft agreement that will govern establishment of maintenance and ownership of the bridge,” Harris said. “Any rehabilitation plans for the bridge would be pending resolution of that agreement.”

There is no established timeline for how much longer that may take, he said.

A consultant is estimating the total cost of needed work, but it probably will be $200,000 to $300,000, Fortson said. It’s not just fixing the railing. One support column also needs shoring up, other supports need some repair, and the bridge itself needs lead paint removed and a repainting.

As for the railing and adjacent sidewalk, the existing rail, even if repaired, isn’t strong enough to stop a car. The railing should be replaced with a stronger one, and one end of the bridge needs a wider sidewalk, he said.

“We also desire to upgrade the appearance of the bridge as a part of the College Hill Corridor improvements by upgrading the appearance of the pedestrian railing,” Fortson said.

The back-and-forth with Norfolk Southern has involved several issues.

“Our initial position was that the bridge was the responsibility of Norfolk Southern,” Fortson said. “We sent a letter to Norfolk Southern defending that position.”

The railroad denied actually owning the bridge but offered to pay for part of the repairs -- provided the city-county government formally accept ownership of the bridge, he said.

Engineering staff accepted that in principle and were working on a formal agreement to present for commission approval, when there was another hitch.

“After a long delay, (the railroad) sent us an agreement that was mistakenly structured as if Norfolk Southern was to do the work,” Fortson said. “That had never been considered. All along, we have planned to hire the engineer and manage the construction contract. They did not intend to accomplish the repair either, so we are not sure why the draft agreement was structured that way.”

Engineering staff replied on Sept. 5 with a draft agreement for Norfolk Southern to pay for some specific repairs, while the city covered the rest. Railroad officials said they would rather make a one-time payment up front, instead of being billed for specific work, Fortson said.

Schlesinger said the railroad has been “dragging its feet” and needs to be pressed because it’s a matter of public safety. It’s not only an eyesore in the College Hill Corridor, but the gap in the already-shaky railing is hazardous, despite being blocked by a plastic construction barrier, he said.

“That’s a temporary fix, but we need a permanent fix. Too much time has passed,” Schlesinger said. “We can’t go on without it being effectively addressed, period.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.