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Bridge is falling down

With all the subtlety of a freight-train whistle, railway giant CSX’s Web site boasts that it is "charting a path to become the safest and most progressive freight transportation company in North America."

Other phrases on the company’s Web page: "We want to be known as being ‘obsessed’ with safety" and "We are committed to provide transportation services in a manner that will ensure the safety of our employees, our customers and the communities we serve."

Perhaps someone should let the company know that those who work, live and travel near the 93-year-old CSX railroad bridge above South 25th Street don’t feel so safe.

Joe Orlando owns Cobra Construction. In December, he moved his general contracting business to a newly constructed office and warehouse space at the corner of 25th and Reed streets, a building he co-owns with a heating and cooling company and the Iron Workers Union, Local 405.

Every morning and every afternoon on his way to and from the Schuylkill Expressway, Orlando reluctantly navigates his car through the slalom of bridge supports lifting the 25th Street span.

Accompanied by a Review reporter, two aides from Council President Anna Verna’s office and Al Frattali, business manger for Local 405, Orlando led a tour of what he believes are the bridge’s most dangerous sections, starting with a support column near 25th and Wolf. The column was reinforced with a 10-foot steel sleeve that had split lengthwise and now hangs loosely around the original pillar.

"Obviously these people [at CSX] can care less about anybody’s safety," Orlando said.

Further south, at 25th and Ritner, he pointed upwards to a 10-foot-long section of the interlocking concrete barrier along the west side of the tracks. It had separated from the adjacent piece and had inched its way toward the 20-foot-high ledge of the overpass.

Orlando worries that each time a locomotive rumbles by — between three and six trains travel the line daily — the vibrations bounce the block perilously closer to catastrophe.

It may take a tragedy before CSX addresses the problem, he believes, pointing out how cities around the country reexamined nightclub safety after a March fire killed 100 people at a Rhode Island bar — or how local authorities searched the city’s piers for even the smallest fissures following the Pier 34 collapse that killed three people and injured dozens in 2000.

"Why do we have to wait for a disaster to come and take care of this?" Orlando posed. "Why do have to wait for some people’s kids to get killed?"

Frattali also drives 25th Street every day to his office at the union hall. The road is four lanes wide — two immediately under the railway and the other two on the outside. During last Thursday’s tour, Frattali steered his SUV northbound in one of the side lanes, as he said he always does to avoid chunks of concrete that fall from the bridge.

"I never ride on the inside lane. I’m scared to ride there, I’ll be honest with you," Frattali said. "And I walk 6-inch beams, 50 stories in the air. I ain’t afraid of nothing, but I’m afraid to ride under that bridge."

He rolled past his alma mater, St. John Neumann High School, and stopped nearby to point to a 30-pound concrete fragment laying in the street. Each bit of stone that crumbles due to weathering and vibrations from the trains exposes more of the bridge’s steel skeletal network of reinforcement bars.

Local 405 trains its ironworkers to weld together pieces of steel rebar to form the skeleton that supports bridges and buildings. In a reinforced concrete structure, such as the 25th Street bridge, the steel supports the weight, Frattali said, but it must work in tandem with concrete to be effective.

"If the concrete is starting to deteriorate and the steel is starting to break loose … where is the strength at?"

There are too many bare patches of exposed rebar to count along the course of the bridge. Some are less conspicuous because they appear to have been painted beige by CSX crews; one worker was painting and epoxying loose pieces during last week’s visit.

But the rebar eventually rusts through the paint and the glue dissolves from the cracks, leaving a trail of white goo dripping from the structure’s underbelly; then, the workers must return to repeat the process. Orlando said he sees them there every few weeks.

"That is a disgrace, and it is making a fool of everyone, including the city of Philadelphia and all of its officials."


On Tuesday, CSX spokesperson Bob Sullivan defended the company’s safety record. The structural integrity of the overpass, he said, "should not be an issue."

"Cosmetically the bridge is not as attractive as you would like it to be," Sullivan added, "but these bridges were constructed to handle tremendous loads."

The overpass was built in 1910 to carry steam engines loading and unloading at the rail yard south of the stadium complex. The portion above 25th Street extends from Passyunk to Washington avenues.

CSX owns 23,000 miles of tracks, serving the East Coast and the Midwest. All CSX bridges are thoroughly inspected once a year and periodically checked in between, Sullivan said.

About the splitting column, concrete barrier that had become unhinged and the exposed rebar, the spokesperson said each problem would be addressed.

"If there is work of that sort that needs to be done, it will get done. We will not endanger the safety of the community or the safety of our employees."

Sullivan called the stone that had fallen from the bridge "spalling," which is caused when water seeps into cracks in the structure and freezes and thaws. Repair crews try to limit this detritus by chipping away loose cement and sealing the area with an adhesive, he said.

Maryanne Mahoney, of Council President Verna’s office, said these were the first complaints she had heard about the bridge.

"Until Joe brought it to our attention, we didn’t realize it was that bad," she said. Verna’s office reacted swiftly to the problem, alerting the managing director who immediately dispatched deputy director James A. Donaghy to the scene.

"This is the first that the managing director’s office has been notified about this," Donaghy said.

He took photos of the railway and said he would show them to the bridge engineers from the Streets Department. He offered no estimate as to when the engineers would be able to determine the safety of the bridge.

It should be noted that when a Review reporter wrote an article addressing this issue two years ago, the Streets Department denied that Philadelphia had any responsibility for the structure. One official said CSX owned the property and "they are responsible for the upkeep of the bridge."


Orlando and Frattali are just the latest community members to voice concerns about the safety of the bridge. Robert Wilbowe — president of the South Philadelphia Rainbow Committee, the Grays Ferry-based civic organization that tackles issues ranging from crime to blight — has been fighting with the railroad companies to repair the structure for nearly 15 years.

Wilbowe’s crusade began modestly, fueled mostly by complaints from people whose vehicles were damaged by falling pieces of concrete. But in 1991, after a 30-foot section of the overpass fell 20 feet and slammed to the ground near 25th and Morris, the problem demanded more attention.

No one was hurt, but Wilbowe and his neighbors realized the bridge was more dangerous than they had imagined. The Rainbow Committee and the residents and businesses in the shadow of the structure began pressuring then-owner Conrail to do something about it.

It took until September 1992 before Conrail acquiesced and hired a contractor to repair the section of the bridge above 25th Street. The work detail included minor aesthetic repairs — painting and epoxying, much like what continues to be done today — rather than the company investing in a complete overhaul.

"That was just patching the wound," said Wilbowe, who can feel the vibrations from passing trains at his home on the 2600 block of Reed Street, "and eventually that Band-Aid will come off of that wound."

Wilbowe suggested it was time to for the community to hold a demonstration along 25th Street as a last resort. Orlando proposed the same thing last week.

"It’s a disaster waiting to happen," Orlando said. "It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen. Now it’s a question of when."

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