In mid-July, the Ohio Department of Transportation said the Anthony Wayne Trail bridge replacement project near City Park Avenue was close to on time, with the Norfolk Southern railroad having just agreed to a demolition plan for the structure over its tracks.
By late last week, however, ODOT reported that the aggressively scheduled project was about a month behind, with little progress made on tearing out the bridge’s downtown-bound lanes.
The problem, project engineer Mike Benton said, was that Norfolk Southern often did not provide a flagman that the railroad requires on construction sites involving active tracks to communicate with trains.
And when a flagman was present, contractor Miller Brothers Construction often had trouble getting time between trains to do the necessary demolition work.
“Track time was hard to get. We knew that would happen, but we also didn’t consistently have a flagger available,” he said.
Flagmen have staffed the work site all of last week and this week, Mr. Benton said. But the delay has made uncertain ODOT’s goal of reopening the bridge’s northbound side — which when rebuilt will be wide enough for two lanes of traffic each way — before winter.
“Our goal is to have, by mid-November, two lanes each way,” the project engineer said.
Jonathan Glass, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the railroad has “taken steps to ensure that flaggers will be available as needed going forward,” but cautioned that “track time” will still be hard to get, especially for the next two weeks.
The NS rail line through Toledo that the bridge spans is “one of our busiest main lines” and the 85 or so freight trains that use it on a typical day include ones hauling “time-sensitive intermodal freight,” Mr. Glass said.
Complicating matters since early June, Mr. Glass said, is work NS itself has been doing in the Toledo area to replace rail on its tracks, which reduces the amount of time it can shut tracks down at the ODOT site.
“After the rail gang completes its work, in about another two weeks, Norfolk Southern expects to be able to increase the availability of track time for ODOT’s contractor,” the railroad spokesman said.
Flagmen, normally drawn from the pool of conductors who work on a particular part of a railroad, serve as liaisons between a railroad-related construction project’s on-site supervisors and railroad operating personnel, including train crews and dispatchers.
They communicate by radio with the train crews — instructing engineers as to when and at what speed their trains may pass through a work zone — and advise construction crews about when and for how long they’ll be able to work before the next train’s approach.
Mr. Benton said even small amounts of “track time” are beneficial.
“We could get several hours on some days, but none on others,” he said. “Even if they [construction workers] can get half an hour, they can get a lot done.”
Mr. Glass blamed the initial trouble with scheduling flagmen on “communication issues and getting things coordinated during the initial startup of the project.”
The Trail bridge project, however, has been planned for years, and is not the first such project involving Norfolk Southern in the Toledo area to have trouble with flagman assignments.
Two years ago, replacement of the Miami Street bridge over the same busy railroad line in East Toledo also encountered delays that project officials blamed on inconsistent assignment of flagmen.
Even greater was the delay incurred after unmarked railroad communications cables were found in the path of construction, prompting project engineers to redesign the structure.
Its completion was delayed by about eight months and it ended up $1.13 million over its original $2.125 million contracted cost.
Ignazio Messina, a city spokesman, said the city subsequently identified $780,000 in expenses that it attributed to Norfolk Southern and sent the railroad a bill that has gone unacknowledged for about a year.
“The city of Toledo is also in receipt of an invoice from NSRR in 2017 for $232,000 for railroad flagmen expenses,” Mr. Messina said. “The city of Toledo is withholding payment of that invoice pending resolution of the overruns.”
Mr. Benton said it’s too early to know yet whether the current project’s delays will affect its overall cost or final completion date, slated for late next year.
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