BLUEFIELD — Norfolk Southern wants to begin discussions with Bluefield related to how to remedy the Grant Street Bridge closure after the city last month threatened legal action.
On Sept. 22, City Board members directed city Attorney Colin Cline to prepare a lawsuit seeking to enforce what the city has determined to be the railroad’s obligation to help repair or replace the bridge, which has been closed since June 2019.
Mayor Ron Martin said during the City Board meeting Tuesday that the railroad wants to talk.
“Since that (September) meeting, we have been approached by Norfolk Southern with the intent to begin serious, substantive discussions about the future of the bridge,” Martin said. “While we cannot guarantee a successful end to these negotiations, we believe that they have approached us in good faith.”
Martin said that working together is the key to address the ongoing problem.
“We hope that, together, we will be able to forge a path forward for the Grant Street Bridge and be able to once again connect the residents of the East End and North Side with the rest of our community,” he said. “Accordingly, we have tabled action on the lawsuit to allow these negotiations to proceed. We hope to have more to report at our next board meeting, scheduled for Oct. 27.”
The bridge connects the East End and North Side to Princeton Avenue and crosses the NS rail lines.
Deterioration over the years led to the Department of Highways recommending closure more than a year ago because of safety concerns.
The board in early September unanimously approved a Grant Street Bridge Necessity Scope of Services study with the E.L. Robinson Engineering firm. The study will address what could be done to repair the bridge.
Since it was closed last year, the city has explored different avenues for funding and studies and enlisted the help of legislators to tackle the problem as impacted and frustrated residents continue to stage protests at the bridge’s closed entrance on Princeton Avenue.
However, since Norfolk Southern owns the 320-ft. bridge and had refused to cooperate, the city’s efforts were at a standstill.
Cline said that during the Sept. 22 meeting the board, in the form of a motion, “expressed its outrage and the outrage of the citizens of Bluefield at the continued silence of Norfolk Southern over the Grant Street Bridge,” adding that the railroad is obligated under the 1940 agreement between the railroad and the City to maintain the steel superstructure and masonry supports of the bridge.
“Mr. Rideout (City Manager Dane Rideout) stated that the last communication we had from the railroad was in July and we’ve heard nothing since,” Cline said. “I hate that it has come to this. The railroad stepped up in 1941 and replaced the Grant Street Bridge, and again cooperated in 1992 when the bridge was refurbished.”
Cline said two major infrastructure issues are “at a standstill” without the railroad’s cooperation.
Residents impacted by the bridge closure have been forced to use a very narrow and dangerous road, which is hazardous and increases response time for emergency vehicles.
A Task Force, comprised of residents of the impacted area as well as city board members and city officials, was created earlier this year to tackle the problem and the study was recommended as a first major step in understanding what action is needed.
Norfolk Southern so far has not sent a representative to attend the Task Force meetings.
The railroad showed early signs it may be willing work with the city, issuing this statement in July 2019 related to allowing a closer inspection of the structure of the bridge:
“Norfolk Southern is working closely with the city and the state Department of Highways on the Grant Street Bridge,” NS said in a statement. “Two spans of the bridge cross above NS tracks in the company’s rail yard at Bluefield, and NS and the city acknowledge that we share responsibility for the bridge.
“DOH closed the bridge after inspecting only the northern section of the structure, which is not on railroad property. The next step is for the DOH to conduct a detailed inspection of the two spans that cross NS property to determine the full extent of the bridge’s condition. NS is working with the DOH to provide access needed to conduct the inspection.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com