Lack of funding, territorial disputes allowing for crumbling railroad bridges in Colorado

DENVER — Carla Hampshire’s desk sits about 20 yards from a busy railroad track in north Denver.  Close enough to see the trucks slam into the railroad bridge that runs over head.

“It rattles my windows if they hit it hard enough,” she said.

Hampshire works at M&O Propane at the corner of York Street and E. Brighton Boulevard.

She hears hundreds of cargo tankers full of diesel fuel, crude oil and liquefied gases rattle by every day.  It’s the sound of the tops of trucks slamming against the bottom of the concrete bridge bridge that is the most rattling.

MAP: See the worst 25 railroad bridges in Colorado

The collisions on the bridge, which is 11-feet-5 inches tall,  are so frequent the underside is scarred. Chunks of concrete are missing and rebar is exposed.

“I’m afraid with trains going by that one of these days that whole bridge is just going to go. I hope I’m not here when it happens,” Hampshire said.

Since 2009, police records show the York Street railroad bridge has been stuck by trucks at least 38 times.

Sinclair gas station ower Wael Abdelsalm works just a few feet from the bridge. He said the number is 20 times that because if the truck driver doesn’t actually get stuck, they drive away before police can arrive to ticket them.

“I’ve seen it three times in one day. The same day,” Abdelsalm said.  “This bridge has been hit so many times man.  You wouldn’t believe it.”

We watched and videotaped as a truck driver named Victor smashed into the top of the low-clearance underpass.

After surveying his crumbled box-trailer, he complained to our cameras that there was no warning or sign that allowed him to spot the trouble before he hit the bridge.

This beat-up highway underpass is one of the oldest standing railroad bridges in Colorado (1912) and it’s in terrible shape.

State engineers first labeled the crumbling concrete bridge “structurally deficient” a decade ago and its condition is no different today.

Inspector observations in 2013 included: “Ends of slab have been hit numerous times – ripping out longitudinal rebars’”and “concrete piles are heavily deteriorated and one is missing.”

Detailed bi-annual safety reports show the railroad bridge deck and superstructure scored a 4 out of a possible 10. That’s the state’s magic number where they start getting concerned for public safety.

Their concerns are more for drivers and residents around deteriorating railroad bridges. They don’t normally analyze, nor have the authority to, inspect the actual tracks, rails, or upper level of the bridge where locomotives pass.

Colorado Department of Transportation Bridge Engineer, Josh Laipply, says when an inspector gives a railroad bridge’s deck, superstructure or substructure a rating of “4”, they consider it “structurally deficient.”

The inspection department hesitates to call it a failing grade, but agrees such a rating means the bridge “is in some state of deterioration that we want to keep an eye on it.”

‘Structurally deficient’ bridges common across Colorado

This bridge is one of many that have serious structural damage.  We reviewed safety inspections for more than 150 railroad bridges and then visited dozens of the most damaged ones.

About one-quarter of those which crossed a city or county road either flunked their latest safety inspection or were deteriorating toward a state inspectors call “structurally deficient.”

We created a list of the 25 worst railroad bridges in Colorado based on poor structural scores, number of years inspectors have labeled the bridge deficient, lack of repairs and additional inspection notes such as the words “fracture critical.”

Engineers tell us fracture critical means if one component would fail, then the whole bridge could come down.

“So when we have fracture critical bridges, we take a harder look at those and we do them on a higher frequency more often,” Laipply said.

One of the railroad bridges that has been repeatedly labeled critical is in Larkspur.

Eileen Pinkowski has long complained about the integrity of the bridge over Fox Road. The 1967 rebuilt bridge snakes past her home.

She has kept some of footage from her exterior surveillance cameras to document her greatest worry — that someday a train carrying dozens of crude-oil-filled rail cars will fly off the curve near this bridge.

She said she has seen as many as 60 hazardous materials canisters, together one after another, race by her property both day and night.

“You’ll hear the squealing of the wheels against the rail,” Pinkowski said.

“They have trouble with the bridge. They have trouble with these tracks,” Pinkowski said.

Pinkowski denies her concerns are a political statement against oil. She understands rail is the least expensive way to transport the material.

“Colorado, I have grown to love. It deserves to be pure the way it is and not be ruined by something catastrophic that would set these entire woods on fire. And all the people down below in Larkspur — I don’t know what would happen to them,” Pinkowski said.

Both Pinkowski and Hampshire told us they were well aware of the real disasters that have recently occurred in connection to derailments of hazardous materials.

Forty-seven people died when train cars full of crude oil exploded in a Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada derailment last summer.

In 2009, flames erupted at a Tiskilwa, Ill. rail yard after an ethanol-carrying train derailed.

The neighborhood evacuations scared both the communities and political leaders alike.

Pinkowski said all she wants is for the Larkspur bridge to get its needed repairs, so she can stop worrying.

“I want change. I want fairness. I want my town to be safe,” she said.

‘Deficient’ bridges are scattered across the state

While reviewing hundreds of safety reports, it was easy to see some common themes.

Older bridges have more problems and there are a surprising number of them.

For example, a trio of bridges along 60th Street in Commerce City is about 70 years old.

The tracks carry soda-can-shaped loads of petroleum products past the Suncor heavy oil refinery. Rust, exposed rebar and crumbled concrete are evident.

Inspectors call its substructure “deficient.”

For years, a railroad overpass on 38th street between Blake and Wazee has needed major repairs to its deteriorating deck. It was built in 1925.

We found similar critical safety issues under bridges in Colorado Springs, Jefferson County and hidden beneath Interstate 70 in the heart of Denver.

Why not fix them?

In 2009, the Colorado legislature started adding fees to vehicle registration.  Half of the money was dedicated for bridge repair and replacement.

The Bridge Enterprise now collects in the neighborhood of $100 million a year. However, it’s not specifically dedicated to railroad bridges.

Laipply said the state is responsible for nearly 3,500 bridges, which mainly carry vehicle traffic.

“We have to take a triage approach, so we take the bridges that are in the worst shape and we feel have the most benefit to the public and sometimes a bridge looks bad, but isn’t necessarily lowest on the list.  But we’re certainly looking out for safety first – that’s our approach,” Laipply said.

What he’s really saying is: there isn’t enough tax money to do it all.

That’s not the only major hindrance. Private railroads have a powerful voice and a legal right to prevent repairs that might stop the flow of their goods.

“CDOT doesn’t own trains,” said Laipply. “So we’ve got to coordinate. If we’re going to do anything to interrupt their service, we have to coordinate with them to make sure we’re not impeding their operations. But at the same time we’re always looking out for the traveling public’s safety.”

Eileen Pinkowski thinks it’s disgusting that railroad companies can manipulate public safety projects just so their cargo can keep moving.

“They just keep putting shims of wood to hold it up and its just balancing precariously,” she said about the Larkspur bridge.  “It’s unsafe and I don’t understand why they won’t fix that bridge after all the other bridges have been fixed.”

CDOT only inspects railroad bridges if they carry traffic over or under the rails.

We spoke to the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington D.C. and that agency confirmed that federal law allows the railroad companies to self-monitor the safety bridges which cross non-auto traffic effected rivers, creeks and culverts.