Rail bridge to business park still years off

Thursday May 10, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- State construction of a new CSX railroad bridge in the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires may not be completed for at least three years, according to Pittsfield Economic Development Authority executive director Cory Thurston.

Thurston expressed concerns about the time frame at Wednesday's PEDA board meeting, saying it could hamper negotiations with prospective business park tenants because Woodlawn Avenue between Kellogg and East streets has been closed for six years.

When fully open, Woodlawn Avenue provides north-south access through the business park between Tyler and East streets.

"That really puts the kibosh on all activities and discussions that are under way with prospective tenants because they need that access for any kind of development," Thurston said, "regardless if it's retail or something else."

The state Department of Transportation is fixing 31 CSX railroad bridges, including six in Western Massachusetts, so that the rail company can run double-stack freight cars between its base in Selkirk, N.Y. and Worcester. The original plans called for just the center span of the Woodlawn Avenue bridge to be replaced, but current plans call for the entire bridge to be torn down and completely reconstructed.

On Wednesday, Thurston said Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi recently received a letter from the DOT that indicated construction of the new bridge wouldn't be completed until the end of 2015.

But Bianchi, who is also a PEDA board member, said state Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey told him on Tuesday that construction on the bridge could be completed in two years instead of three.

"He's talking construction now as early as March 2014," Bianchi said. "I asked if there was any way to speed this up at all, and he said I'll see what I can do."

Bianchi said Davey told him that under the current economic conditions the DOT is receiving better bids on construction projects, "so there's been money left on the table."

The mayor said Davey indicated that some of those leftover funds could be used to spur the Pittsfield project along.

"So I'm confident that that we're doing everything we can," Bianchi said. "We've got our (state) legislative delegation on board."

DOT spokesman Michael Versekes characterized the current Woodlawn Avenue railroad bridge as "structurally obsolete" adding that the span "won't adhere to today's standards."

The DOT is currently working on the 25 percent design phase of the new structure. He said the DOT believes that three years is a reasonable time frame for a new bridge to be constructed.

"We're not going to do it haphazardly," Versekes said. "We want to make sure that when it goes up it goes through the appropriate process."

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan referred all inquires to the DOT.

The DOT's work on the Woodlawn Avenue bridge was not included in local bridge work that is currently taking place on CSX spans in Hinsdale and Richmond. Although the CSX Railroad had given permission to have the bridge's center span replaced, the state couldn't provide the funding for its removal until the parcel passed from GE's ownership to PEDA's, which occurred last year.

According to Thurston, CSX hopes to have all of the obstacles to running double-stack freight cars between Selkirk and Worcester removed by August. But he said that deadline reflects only the removal of the current obstacles, and has nothing to do with the construction of any replacements.

However, CSX can't remove the current bridge without PEDA's approval. On Wednesday, Thurston said that PEDA has some leverage in the bridge construction process, because he has yet to sign off on the demolition of the current span.

"We do hold some cards," he said. "The longer I delay in signing the contract it could supply some impetus, but that could also work in reverse.

"I could create an issue for the city," Thurston said. "I'm obviously sensitive to that."


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