Nanticoke railroad bridge repairs are interfering with river traffic

By Lynn R. Parks

The railroad bridge that crosses the Nanticoke River at Seaford is undergoing repairs. The swing span, built in 1895, needs its center bearing replaced, said David Pidgeon, spokesman for Norfolk Southern, the rail company that owns the bridge.

During the time of the repairs, the bridge will remain perpendicular to the river so that trains can cross. It will not, however, be able to swing open to allow boats to pass by.

The U.S. Coast Guard Bridge Program oversees the bridge and how it impacts river traffic. Terry Knowles, spokesman for the Fifth District headquartered in Portsmouth, Va., said that his office has approved the bridge closure for the repairs. The Coast Guard issued a notice to mariners earlier this month, advising that the bridge was closed and that there is no other water route that boaters can use to get around the bridge. When the bridge is closed, the advisory said, "there is zero vertical clearance to vessels."

The Coast Guard approval for the bridge closure is good until Nov. 1. Pidgeon anticipates that the work on the bridge will go past that, possibly through the winter.

If needed, Knowles said, Norfolk Southern will have to apply for an extension of the closure permission. That application has to be filed a couple of weeks before the expiration of the current agreement, he said.

The bridge closure means that the Blades Marina, upriver in Blades, is isolated. Boats from the marina can't get out of Seaford; boats that are west of the bridge can't get to the marina.

"I'm certainly upset," said Tom McGean, Seaford, who keeps his 20-foot Grady-White boat at the marina. Due to the 2012 Nanticoke River dredging project and problems with the railroad bridge last year, "for three years in a row I have lost two months of fall boating, the best season for boating."

McGean said that the Blades Marina, which is owned by the state and is operated by the Blades Economic Development Corporation (Bedco), is a wonderful facility.

But he is considering moving his boat to a marina in Millsboro or Cambridge, Md., so that he won't have this problem again.

"A significant amount of taxpayer money went into building the Blades Marina," McGean said. "To have it landlocked by a 1890s railroad bridge is really a shame."

Ed Cranston is dockmaster at the marina. He said that following his request that the bridge be open to boat traffic so that boats could get to the marina to be docked for the winter, Norfolk Southern opened the bridge during the second weekend of the month.

Last week, he called the company to ask for a second opening. "We've still got eight boats out that want to get in to the marina for the winter," he said. As of Monday, he had not heard back about that request.

On Monday afternoon, Pidgeon said that Norfolk Southern is "working with the marina for occasional openings to allow boats to get into winter storage." He added that his company "believes strongly in being a good corporate neighbor."

But Cranston said that this has been an ongoing problem for years. In fact, hearing officer Robert Thompson warned in his June 1999 report on Bedco's application for permission to build the marina that the bridge could cause delays for boats trying to get and from the marina. "Another navigational problem arises from a downstream railroad bridge which requires a signal to the bridge tender to open," Thompson wrote.

Cranston said that McGean isn't the only boat owner who is considering moving their crafts to another marina. "We have a number of owners who are thinking about going somewhere else," he said.

Cranston said that he would like to see the railroad company keep the bridge better maintained so that it doesn't require major work so often. He would also like for it to take the marina and its boat owners into account when scheduling work on the bridge.

"They don't have any regard for us whatsoever," he said.

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