BLUEFIELD — Norfolk Southern Corporation will work with the City of Bluefield on repairing the Grant Street Bridge, but any help involving a replacement or another alternative access road would be limited.
“Norfolk Southern shares the desire of the community to restore access between the downtown commercial district and North Side and East End neighborhoods, and we stand ready to contribute the funds to fulfill our maintenance obligations to help repair the Grant Street Bridge,” said Darrell Wilson, Norfolk Southern’s assistant vice president government relations, in a letter Sunday to members of the Grant Street Bridge Task Force.
Wilson said the commitment by NS is based on an engineering report
performed earlier this year related to the costs associated with bridge repair.
“That estimate was derived from a detailed report produced by the West Virginia Department of Highways and was developed by third -party engineering professionals who allocated the City of Bluefield’s and Norfolk Southern’s respective maintenance responsibilities as specified in the 1940 agreement frequently referenced by the task force,” Wilson said in the letter.
However, the letter did not specify the dollar amount of that estimate.
An 80-year-old agreement between NS and the city has been place to specific each entity’s responsibility with the maintenance of he bridge, which was built in 1941 but closed in June 2019 after a state inspection deemed it unsafe. The superstructure (support) is the responsibility of NS and the road service work (planking on top) is the city’s, according to previous reports.
In September 2019, a preliminary estimated cost to repair the Grant Street Bridge in Bluefield so it can reopen was between $1.5 million and $2 million.
Kerry Stauffer, the city’s engineer, told the city board at that time a replacement bridge would cost at least $6 million.
In early September this year, the board of directors unanimously approved a Grant Street Bridge Necessity Scope of Services study with the firm E.L. Robinson Engineering. The study will address what could be done to repair the Grant Street Bridge.
Besides repairing the bridge, other alternatives to restore access to the city were also explored by NS.
“Norfolk Southern also analyzed two other alternatives for restoring access between the downtown commercial district and North Side and East End neighborhoods,” Wilson said. “These alternatives included demolishing the existing structure and constructing a new bridge; or extending existing public streets to link Wayne Street and Roanoke or Hardy Streets via a newly constructed public road.”
Extending the street would use the northern edge of Norfolk Southern’s property between these streets, ultimately linking with the new Martin Luther King Jr. bridge near Pulaski and Roanoke streets, he added
“After considerable analysis, it is clear that alternatives beyond the scope of rehabilitating the existing structure would require substantially longer development times,” Wilson said. “We also note that Norfolk Southern has no contractual obligations under the 1940 maintenance agreement to build a new bridge or to construct additional access roads for the City.”
Wilson said that after discussions with the city and the basic agreement of responsibility that has been in place, NS has “no obligation to participate in the construction of any new, publicly-owned access road or a new bridge.”
“Norfolk Southern believes the best, most expedient, and most feasible course of action is to make the necessary repairs to the existing bridge,” Wilson said. “We are willing to discuss the other alternatives, but our financial contribution for any such alternative will be capped at the limit of our maintenance obligations for the repairs needed to restore the current structure.”
Wilson said the company understands that the community has been and continues to be frustrated by the closure of the bridge and the letter to the Task Force is “to let you know we understand to re -open the bridge as quickly as possible.”
“Norfolk Southern stands ready to meet with the Task Force for further discussions,” he said. “We are hopeful that, by working together, we can reestablish access for the residents of Bluefield to its revitalized downtown commercial district and the vibrant East End and North Side communities.”
City officials have been trying to acquire the cooperation of NS to work with them on the project since last year and, because of a lack of response, informed the railroad in September a lawsuit would be filed pending that cooperation.
However, earlier this month, Mayor Ron Martin said 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.”
Residents impacted by the closing have been forced to use a very narrow and dangerous road, which is hazardous and increases response time for emergency vehicles.
The 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 a study was recommended as a first major step in understanding what action is needed.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com.