Recent river levels generate worries about railroad bridge near East Hannibal

Ted Schwartz points out that the Norfolk Southern Railway bridge north of Hannibal, Mo., could pose a problem and back up the Mississippi River. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Jul. 12, 2014 4:40 pm Updated: Aug. 9, 2014 7:09 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

EAST HANNIBAL, Ill. -- As the Mississippi River began rising to menacing levels earlier this month, Fred Schwartz started keeping an eye on the Norfolk Southern Railway bridge a mile from his East Hannibal home.

Schwartz had reason to worry. He was a Sny Island Levee and Drainage District commissioner during the historic flood of 1993. He and many other Sny landowners became convinced the district's levee broke near East Hannibal that year because water climbed the upstream levee at an accelerated pace once the rain-swollen river hit the bottom of the railroad bridge between Illinois and Missouri.

"When the river got up into the floor of the bridge, it acted like a dam all the way across the river, and it just came on up," Schwartz said. "I called the railroad and tried to get them to open up the drawbridge, and they wouldn't do it."

After the besieged levee gave way on July 25, 1993, about 40,000 acres of land were inundated, including the towns of East Hannibal, Hull and part of Fall Creek.

Schwartz said four homes owned by his family, including his own, were lost.

Fast forward to June 2008. Schwartz and many other landowners grew concerned as the Mississippi River approached its second-highest level in history. Once again, the Norfolk Southern Railway bridge became the center of controversy.

At that time, the focus was on a "lift span" that was installed on the railroad bridge shortly after the 1993 flood to replace the old swing span. The lift span could be raised and lowered by motors, if necessary, to let boats or floating debris pass through during times of high water.

Sny officials had the understanding railroad officials promised to leave the lift span in the elevated position once the bridge was closed to rail traffic that year because of rising water. Instead, the lift span was locked in the down position, and the electric motors were removed, meaning the span couldn't be raised until the floodwater receded.

Railroad officials claimed they hadn't promised they would keep the lift span in the raised position. Instead, they contended the span had to be locked in the down position to make the bridge more stable during flooding.

The dispute was brought to the attention of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who intervened. He encouraged railroad leaders to hold a conference call with officials from the Sny and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Durbin's staff also contacted top officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make them aware of the potential impact a Sny levee breach could have on transportation and commerce.

Eventually, the emergency resolved itself when the river started dropping below worrisome levels. Nevertheless, all of the involved parties agreed to have a high-level meeting soon after the 2008 flood event to iron out the situation for the future.

No such meeting was ever held.

Then the river started rising once again two weeks ago. Though the river has since crested at 26.7 feet Tuesday and continues to fall slowly, Schwartz feared another problematic situation could develop.

One of his sons, Ted Schwartz, understands his father's concerns. After all, 99 percent of the family's farming operation is in the Sny floodplain.

"Every time the river comes up, we're very concerned," Ted Schwartz said. "Our livelihood is at stake."

Mike Reed, superintendent of the Sny, acknowledged that no sit-down meeting with railroad officials and governing agencies was ever held. He said it was his understanding the situation hasn't changed since 2008.

"The railroad has steadfastly stated that they don't feel the bridge contributes to flooding," Reed said. "They also say that they cannot leave the bridge in the up position because it's not as stable, even though they told three different public officials in 2008 that they would leave it in the up position."

Reed said there has been some informal discussion in recent years about the possibility of somehow modifying the railroad bridge so the lift span could be kept in the raised position while also keeping the bridge sufficiently stable.

"I don't know if anything has ever come of it," he said.

As it turns out, something has been done.

In response to an inquiry from The Quincy Herald-Whig, Norfolk Southern Railway spokesman Robin Chapman, based in Norfolk, Va., did some checking and found that "the problem we encountered in 2008 is not a problem this year," he said.

According to Chapman, the railroad made some renovations to the bridge last winter that involved moving the lift span's electric motors to a higher position so they no longer have to be removed during flooding.

"So the bridge remains operable even at flood stage now," Chapman said. "If they need to raise the bridge to let boats through or let debris through, they can do that now."

Chapman said the railroad shut down rail traffic across the bridge about a week ago after the river stage at Hannibal reached a level of 22.5 feet. He said the railroad intends to keep the lift span mainly in the down position "to preserve the integrity of the bridge." However, if the need arises during a flood situation, the lift span can now be raised.

"We did it mainly to make sure the bridge remained operable under flooding conditions," he said.

Chapman said the controversy that erupted over the locked-down lift span in 2008 "is a moot point now."

While that may be a step forward, Schwartz said he would still like to see the Sny's 54 miles of main stem river levee raised to the 500-year level of protection to help guard the 110,000-acre district against future flood threats. The levee has been bolstered since 1993 and is currently certified as a 100-year levee.

According to Reed, a proposed Comprehensive Plan guiding flood control efforts on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers would give the Sny and most other levee districts the opportunity to raise their levees to the 500-year level. However, the proposed plan -- in development since 1993 -- has never been authorized by Congress.

"It's not an option right now," he said.