It’s more than a derailment: Norfolk’s collapsing southbridges need attention too

Neighbors of the Lake Avenue Bridge have been working to have Norfolk Southern repair it since 2018. In 2021, a group of Lake Avenue Bridge Friends hung banners on the bridge. (Photo by Julia Van Wagenen)

For years, residents of my western neighborhood have dodged chunks of concrete and other debris falling from the collapsing Lake Avenue Bridge that stands between Cadell and Edgewater Park. The bridge is operated by Norfolk Southern Railway, the same railroad company whose train derailed last month near East Palestine, Ohio.

In the spring of 2018, neighbors attending a block club meeting at McNamara’s pub, south of the bridge, mentioned its poor condition, and discussion began on how best to advocate for repairs. As a result of this exchange, the Friends of the Lake Avenue Bridge was formed, and our work to get the attention of Norfolk Southern began.

Friends of the Lake Street Bridge cleaned up the bridge. (Photo by Ann Armstrong)

First, we spent a few Saturdays on the bridge picking up trash, taking out the trash, and sweeping up the dirt that runs down the walls and coats the sidewalk. Our group’s founding member Julia Van Wagenen started the Ioby crowdfunding campaign and received a grant from the Great Lakes Alliance that raised a total of $8,475 to decorate the bridge. In the meantime, I researched its rich history.

“Lake Avenue in Central New York, 1900s” (courtesy Western Preserve Historical Society)

The Lake Avenue Bridge was built in 1912. Designed by renowned Cleveland architect Frederick Striebinger, the bridge is clad in decorative cast iron and served as the southern entrance to Edgewater Park for more than a century. Once there were dangerous traffic tunnels in this place, until the noise around convinced the city and the railway to build something more suitable for entering the city park.

With the help of AmeriCorps member Julia LaPlaca, I completed the nomination of the Lake Avenue Bridge as a Cleveland Landmark, and in November 2021, the Landmarks Commission unanimously recognized the bridge as a City Landmark. Recognition of the bridge as a historical landmark ensures the preservation of the design and architectural integrity of the bridge, but does not force its owner to repair.

In June 2021, we posted banners on the bridge urging Norfolk Southern to “fix the bridge.” By doing this because of their inaction, we hoped to draw attention to the dangerous situation for all who pass under the bridge. For years, neighbors have found large chunks of concrete and even cast iron that have fallen off the bridge onto the sidewalk or street below.

Norfolk Southern is legally responsible for maintaining the bridge, including its drainage system, in good condition. According to ORC 4955.23, no railroad crossing over a street occupied by people should allow the bridge to “remain in such a condition that iron, coal, other solids, liquids or harmful substances may fall or fall across such crossing or bridge against people traveling or passing under it.” A railroad company that violates ORC 4955.23 must pay the City $100 per day for each day that the failure or violation continues (ORC 4955.24). Not just chunks of concrete and cast iron falling in violation of this ordinance, but dirt that continues to seep down the walls, shorting out the LED lights the city has recently installed.

The city of Macedonia, Ohio, faced a similar situation: a dilapidated underpass on Ledge Road caused large chunks of concrete to fall on cars passing under it. Macedonia sued Norfolk Southern, invoked Ohio Law 4955.24, and ultimately agreed to a $500,000 repair and a fundraising agreement for a replacement.

In response to our efforts, Norfolk Southern dispatched a team of engineers to inspect the bridge and then remove any loose parts that might have fallen. The problem is that the drainage system on the bridge has not functioned for decades, and, especially during any cycles of freezing or thawing, individual pieces continue to appear. They eventually installed a “plywood deck” over the pavement portion of the bridge, but we’ve even found parts of it on the pavement on windy days.

The railroad has repeatedly stated that the bridge is strong enough for trains to pass, which is their main concern, and there will be no major repairs anytime soon. But it’s only a matter of time before something falls, injuring someone or damaging a car passing underneath.

Morgan Taggart, another founding member of the Friends of Lake Avenue Bridge, said that “South Norfolk has shown casual disdain for the communities they pass through; the bridge is safe for their trains, but not for the community.” She added: “The bridge continues to collapse and they have not made a serious attempt to address these issues. The hands of the local government are tied and now it’s up to Norfolk Southern.”

While Norfolk Southern was inactive, the funds raised by Julia Van Wagenen were put to good use. They were used to purchase cleaning supplies, paint and a cordless graffiti-camouflage paint sprayer, annuals and perennials that were planted on the slopes of Desmond and Viking Court, and a public art project created using cyanotype prints from Art in the New York Times. An event in the park hosted by Yulia.

District 15 City Councilwoman Jenny Spencer, who also sponsored legislation to make the Lake Avenue Bridge a city landmark, presided over a railroad safety hearing on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, the morning after the City Council passed Resolution 340-2023 calling on Congress and the Ohio General Assembly to enact legislation to further protect Cleveland residents from the inherent dangers of a train derailment on tracks located in our city. At the hearing, they reviewed federal regulations and heard from Mayor Bibb’s team about the city’s contingency plan in the event of a rail derailment in the city of Cleveland.

Of particular concern to many Council members present were the maintenance of railroad property in their areas, including the many other dilapidated bridges. The city of Cleveland seems to be littered with them. At least two of the Council members present, Mike Polensec and Joe Jones, believe the city needs to become more aggressive on the railroads and that past administrations have been too passive. Given the condition of the Lake Avenue bridge, I’m inclined to agree.

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