Extended bridge work extends transits south on the ICW

Every year, like birds flying south to avoid the winter snow and cold, many northerners transit by boat to occupy slips and fill marinas with visitors during the raw winter months.  If last year’s house-high snowdrifts are any indication, perhaps even more ‘snowbirds’ will travel south for the winter.  For boaters, extended bridge work in Virginia will make the transit south even more difficult.  One on-line sailing magazine has already prepared travelers for extended slow travel, surmising perhaps even a few days or more delay.

From Waterway Guide:

Bottleneck at the Belt Line – Norfolk VA – UPDATE

Region: Chesapeake & Delaware Bays
Date Reported: Oct 23, 2015
Reported By: Mike Ahart, News Editor
Source: WG Staff

UPDATE: In response to the overwhelming feedback the Coast Guard has received, primarily from the recreational boating community, it is strongly considering altering the closure times recently released in a Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB 15-031), according to an email sent this morning by LT Woodman, USCG Sector Hampton Roads Waterway Management: “What we are currently considering is: From 1100 to 1900, daily, from October 29, 2015 until November 5, 2015, the Norfolk Belt Line Railroad Bridge will remain in the closed-to-navigation position (with a) scheduled lift time…at 1500 daily.”

I think this will be a great help to cruisers (as long as they know about it!) compared to the other schedule, allowing cruisers a more leisurely, less crowded pace in the morning. Nighttime closures would be better, but apparently that was not going to work for the contractors. 

The Coast Guard is asking for additional input before they make the final decision, particularly from commercial vessel interests, by 1200 today:HamptonRoadsWaterway@uscg.mil.

Also, cruisers have reported this morning that, although closures are scheduled today (last day of the original closures), the bridge was in the up position this morning at 8:45 with no sign of work or workers.

Belt-Line-1.jpg

The last two weeks in October is the busiest time for cruisers moving through Hampton Roads southbound. Cruisers gear up for the migration at the several mid-October boat shows and rendezvous on the Chesapeake Bay, and many boat insurance policies require vessels to stay above a certain “hurricane” latitude until Nov. 1.

So why was a major closure of the waterway scheduled for the busiest time of the year? I contacted the Coast Guard and the railroad to find the answer – but first, the situation.

The normally-open Belt Line Railroad Bridge at Mile 2.6 has been closed daily this past week – Oct. 16-23, 2015 – with only 3 openings each day between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. (9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m) for a maintenance project to replace the ties across the lift bridge. The Coast Guard rule was published “without notice,” which is common for emergency situations. The rule also stated “The Coast Guard has carefully coordinated the restrictions with commercial and recreational waterway users” – I am not sure who it coordinated with, but I would guess that most every marina, bridge tender, and local Coast Guard crew member knows that this is the busy season for the southbound migration. The Coast Guard did not solicit comments before the closures were announced in early October.

The project will not be completed by tomorrow, so the USCG is now proposing to extend the ICW closures, Oct. 29 to Nov. 5, and this time it is soliciting comments – and it’s received plenty.

The Sail to the Sun Rally waited for the 0900 opening this morning (see photo). Waterway Guide Editor-in-Chief Ed Tillett counted around 70 vessels waiting. The “bunching up” of boats has meant slow going all the way through the locks and beyond. Some cruisers have reported that they have come through the Belt Line at the 3pm opening and could not get to the Gilmerton in time for its rush-hour closure 3:30-5:30pm.

Tim Leighton on SV Magic transited on Tuesday (Oct. 20): “Huge goat rope at the bridge with well over 30 boats waiting to pass at the 1200 opening. They were 10 min late opening which created an almost hazardous condition as boats closed up to the bridge in anticipation of the opening. The Gilmerton opens on request but the bridge tender would not open for me until ALL sailboats (or any boat >35′ air draft) from the 1200 opening arrived. Another 15 minute wait. Lesson here is that it would help if all sailboats transit from the Belt Line RR Bridge to the Gilmerton as a group since it does no good to get ahead! Finally, Robert at the Deep Creek lock actually will do two lockings to get all boats waiting through at one time. Unfortunately, he works alone so the first group through has to wait passed the lock but north of the bridge until the second groups exits. Another 30 or so minute delay but far better than waiting for the next scheduled opening. Kudos to him!”

I talked with LT Lisa Woodman of USCG Sector Hampton Roads Waterway Management. She said the Coast Guard has no control over the maintenance schedules of federal rail lines; however, they have been working with the Coast Guard bridges office and the Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line railroad concerning the new proposed closure. “We have gotten a significant amount of public concern regarding the closure. While it is impossible for (the railroad) to delay the maintenance due to safety reasons, they are considering having the bridge fully open October 31st and November 1st (the weekend) and/or shifting the opening schedule if there are better times which would assist boaters in completing their transits.”

Some of the comments submitted by boaters, marinas and other stakeholders ask whether the rest of the maintenance could be done at night. Boaters have reported that some openings have taken over a half an hour with the bridge open just to get all the boats through. If you add time it takes to open the bridge manually, plus all of the prep and reset work the construction crew must need to do, just those 3 openings a day could hamper the maintenance work considerably.

I asked the railroad these questions:

  • Was it imperative that this maintenance be performed at this particular time, or could it just as well been originally scheduled in, say, mid-November?
  • Could the maintenance have been done at night?
  • Did you need to receive Coast Guard approval before scheduling the maintenance?

Donna Coleman, Vice President of Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad immediately responded:

  • The NPBL is just starting the grain season, the heaviest cargo we handle. The volume of inbound trains precludes us doing the work later in the season because it would have a trickle-down effect causing congestion on railroads across the country. The work needed to be done for safety reasons before these heavier trains started arriving.
  • Our contractor originally told us it was not safe to be working at night. Since the project is going to run long we are asking if the last portions could be finished at night. (In a follow up email, relayed that the “contractor is still very concerned about safety at night…there are also some parts under the bridge that they say can’t be done at night.”)
  • The Coast Guard did solicit input before giving their approval for the closings. We actually modified our schedule to accommodate a request made through them.

Coleman added: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused but a failure on this bridge could affect both rail and maritime traffic for a much longer period. We are trying to be proactive in preventing such an incident.”

The 26-mile-long rail line serves a number of terminals in the Hampton Roads area, connecting to the CSX, Norfolk-Southern, Bay Coast, C&A, and Commonwealth railroads.

Sail to the Sun ICW Rally leader Wally Moran commented on the closures: “Frankly having now navigated that section this morning I don’t think (there is) any excuse for not going to a nighttime work schedule. It is hazardous in the extreme, particularly for the recreational boaters who are not as well trained, and I make that comment as a professional mariner and charter captain.”

Questions and comments concerning the proposed dates may be directed to Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads Waterways Management Division, (757) 668-5580, email HamptonRoadsWaterway@uscg.mil – Deadline for comments is tomorrow Oct. 23.

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