The 'can opener' viaduct on Third Street near Winkler Avenue

The 'can opener' viaduct on Third Street near Winkler Avenue. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In April 2010, while examining a railroad bridge near the University of Louisville, a state inspector found “impact damage from high loads” and columns with missing concrete after being hit by vehicles.

“Although the signs are posted, the fact that this bridge keeps getting hit indicates that the signing could be improved,” the inspector concluded.

 Two years later, a different state inspector determined that the signs weren’t effective and suggested that flashing lights be added based on the amount of damage. There were similar recommendations in 2014. Reports from 2016, 2018 and 2020, obtained by WDRB News through a public records request, also reiterated that “signing could be improved.”

More than 20 signs warn that the railroad viaduct and a companion overpass nearby aren’t tall enough to accommodate tractor trailers and other large vehicles. But crashes still happen. Some Louisvillians have dubbed those two bridges “The Can Opener” for repeatedly shearing the tops off semis and big trucks.

Now, in an effort to cut down on those wrecks, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is planning to install two height detection systems in the coming weeks. The technology is straightforward: Invisible light beams span the roadways. Tall vehicles will trip the beams, activating flashing lights and a digital message to alert drivers before it’s too late.

“We're hoping that we get rid of all of those crashes, but at the very least, we will significantly reduce them,” said Matt Bullock, chief engineer for the Transportation Cabinet’s Department of Highways office in Louisville.

Gov. Andy Beshear announced the $150,000 project earlier this year — as part of a $23 million road safety improvement program near public schools — that will address northbound traffic approaching UofL’s campus on Third Street.   

The bridge, owned by CSX Corp., carries trains over Third Street near Winkler Avenue. At 11 feet, 8 inches tall, it’s lower than the recommended standards of 14 feet, or 16 feet in dense urban areas. A Norfolk Southern Corp. bridge closer to Eastern Parkway also fails to reach that recommended height.

But in 2010, two warning systems were added on Third Street and Eastern Parkway to notify drivers approaching the Norfolk Southern bridge. On Third Street, for example, the beams connect two light standards at a crosswalk by UofL.

That side of the viaducts received the warning systems first because it had “significantly more incidents” at the time, according to KYTC.

Bullock credits those two devices with helping to lower the number of crashes in the area. Over the last three years, he said, there have been about 125 collisions, with about 10% involving commercial vehicles on the side with the high-vehicle warning system.

On the other side, where the improvements are planned, 25% of the crashes involved commercial trucks, according to state data.

Other data from Kentucky State Police show that there have been about 35 collisions on the stretch of Third Street between Winkler Avenue and Eastern Parkway since the start of 2018. No deaths have occurred.

Bullock said the new detection systems could be in place as early as October, with one about 350-500 feet south of the CSX viaduct on Third Street and the other on Winkler before Third.

Bullock said when a truck passes through the beam on Third Street, lights will flash and the traffic light at Third and Winkler will turn red. That will allow too-tall vehicles to turn left onto Winkler, a move that is currently not allowed.   

Near that intersection, Bluegrass Awning Co. President Bruce Dodge has watched large vehicles crash into the CSX viaduct for 25 years. By his count, there are roughly two crashes per week. Dodge doubts that the state-compiled statistics are correct. He estimates as many as 40% of the collisions aren’t reported.

“They drive off,” he said. “If the semi doesn’t get too far under it, the first thing they do is put it in reverse and back up.”

He is optimistic that the new warning system will prevent those crashes, since as drivers approach the bridge they must be aware of cars on both sides of Third Street and a canopy of trees above.

“There’s a lot going on,” he said.

Dodge said he’s seen the road shut down for up to three hours when a crash occurs as workers unload the cargo from damaged trucks.

Metro Council President David James, whose district includes the viaducts, said he’s spoken with truckers who told him they were looking at their GPS or at the road and didn’t see the low-height placards on the bridge before a collision.

“I think anything that the engineers can come up with to help reduce the number of times that people's lives are put in jeopardy because of a truck hitting one of those and traffic being backed up and commerce being stopped because of that — it’s is a good thing,” he said.

KYTC's inspections are limited to issues related to whether signs are posted correctly or missing, and if there’s maintenance needed that would affect traffic. Inspectors don’t evaluate the structural condition of the bridge.

That is the responsibility of the railroad companies. In 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration began requiring track owners to inspect their bridges each year, but the findings weren’t required to be made public.

In 2015, Congress passed a sweeping transportation bill that lets local or state governments request inspection reports for railroad bridges in their areas. Neither Louisville Metro government nor KYTCt has asked for reports from CSX on the viaduct near Third and Winkler, according to responses to open records requests.

“We do communicate with them when we do the inspection reports if there's anything we see that needs to be addressed,” Bullock said. “Because we're not responsible for the actual maintenance of those bridges. They are.”

Louisville Metro’s Department of Public Works did not respond to questions about why the city has not ever requested railroad inspection reports for the bridge and whether city officials have contacted CSX to ask about the condition of the bridge in light of the crashes there.

In a statement, CSX spokeswoman Sheriee S. Bowman said the railroad supports the advance warning system being added near the Third Street overpass. She said the bridges are “thoroughly inspected” under policies that meet and often exceed federal regulations. The company assesses potential damage to its bridges when they’re notified of a collision, she said.

“The CSX bridge at Third Street and Winkler Avenue has been inspected and is safe for train operations.”

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