Posted 11/19/19

(Editor's Note: This is the 11th in a two-week series exploring existing infrastructure and future needs in the Cleveland and Bradley County community.)They call it the “can-opener bridge.”Long …

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(Editor's Note: This is the 11th in a two-week series exploring existing infrastructure and future needs in the Cleveland and Bradley County community.)

They call it the “can-opener bridge.”

Long known for peeling back the tops of trucks too tall to pass beneath it, the 11-foot-8 inch, Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Bridge in Durham, N.C., has become an internet star after several videos were posted online showing the unfortunate results that occur when truck drivers underestimate the bridge’s height.

It even has its own webpage,, which documents the results of those poor decisions, many in which result in turning large portions of trucks into scrap metal.

The webpage lists a warning: “The train trestle prominently featured in all the videos … has earned a reputation for its unrelenting enforcement of the laws of physics. If your vehicle is taller than 11 feet, 8 inches, and you challenge this bridge, you might find footage of your experience on this website.”

There’s lots of video footage posted too, with some  dating back to 2008. There's also photos of accidents from the 1960s and 1950s.

But, according to the Huffington Post, the problem will cease when the 79-year-old bridge’s height will be raised eight inches. The construction project began in late October.

The bridge is owned by North Carolina Railroad Company and carries trains owned by Norfolk Southern, as well as other railroads.

Durham's reported last month that workers are “using jacks to lift the steel beams that carry the tracks over the street, then sliding new plates between the beams and concrete piers.”

In addition, the news site explained that “workers are also creating a change in grade along the tracks on both sides of the bridge.”

The project will cost $500,000, which will be paid for by the bridge’s owner, according to The News and Observer in Raleigh.

Three years ago, the North Carolina Department of Transportation installed a traffic signal, just ahead of the bridge, that turns red when a tall truck trips a laser beam across the street.

“An LED message next to the red light reads “Overheight Must Turn,” warning the driver before the light turns green,” the Observer article reported.

Although the bridge will be raised eight inches, the warning system will remain, a NCDOT spokesperson told the Observer.

“NCDOT will adjust the height of the laser beam and install new warning signs to reflect the new clearance of the bridge,” the spokesperson said.

Cleveland’s own can-opener bridge

Cleveland has its own can-opener bridge, the Inman Street bridge and underpass, which has its own notorious record of heavily damaging trucks when they attempt to pass underneath.

Five Points Cafe owner Jeanine Chastain, whose restaurant is located adjacent to the underpass, has witnessed several bridge strikes over the years.

"I've seen it happen so many times," she told the Cleveland Daily Banner last month after a truck had struck the bridge. "It's dangerous."

Chastain was busy working inside her restaurant when she heard the crash.
"It jarred my cafe," she said.

She said something needs to be done about the accidents.

"There are people's lives at stake," Chastain said. "What's it going to take for something to get done?”

According to a 2016 article from, USDOT has been tracking the problem nationwide.

“Figures from USDOT show that in a five-year period, large trucks struck bridge supports, bridge overhead structures or bridge rails thousands of times annually: 3,421 times in 2010; 2,505 times in 2011; 2,676 in 2012; 5,139 times in 2013; and 4,209 times in 2014,” the article reported.

Fifteen of the crashes in that timeframe were fatal, the article stated.

While the Inman Street bridge’s owner — Norfolk Southern — currently has no plans to alter the height of the 46-year-old bridge, city officials have been left scratching their heads regarding a solution to the problem.

Cleveland City Council members react

It was one of several questions that confronted the Cleveland City Council last month as its members discussed several recent accidents involving oversized trucks that have crashed into the bridge.

Year to date, there have been eight bridge strikes, preceded by two in 2018 and six in 2017, according to Cleveland Police Department public information officer Sgt. Evie West.

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks proposed the city find a solution to reduce the accidents, which have occurred twice just this month.

Currently, warning signs are posted on the bridge, one of which has flashing lights. 

Brooks suggested constructing an overhead street sign one block away from both sides of the underpass that would act as a failsafe measure to prevent further accidents.

“If a truck hits the sign one block ahead of the bridge, the drivers will stop before they hit it,” Brooks said. “It would be a warning."

The mayor also suggested hanging a multi-chain-like apparatus from an overhead pole that trucks would strike prior to approaching the underpass.

“It would be a very loud warning signal to a truck,” Brooks said, adding that trucks have been crashing into the bridge ever since he moved to Cleveland 33 years ago to attend Lee College, now Lee University.

City Manager Joe Fivas said the city will be working with the state, as well as Norfolk Southern, to develop a solution.

“We'll coordinate with them and see if they have any ideas, and we’ll also carry the mayor's and council’s message to them,” Fivas said.

Councilman Ken Webb strongly encouraged the city to recoup costs incurred when warning signs are damaged by trucks that crash into the bridge. 
Fellow Councilman Tom Cassada said he was unsure about installing a chain-link warning device.

“I’m not sure what it would look like,” he said. "I think that’s the last thing I would want to see as I’m coming into downtown.”

Vice Mayor Avery Johnson cautioned his fellow council members to explore all solutions before attempting to recover sign-damage costs, suggesting the current signage may not be adequate to hold drivers wholly responsible for the accidents.

“I'm all for fixing the problem before we try to recover any costs because we have to verify the responsibility before putting something out there,” he said.

Norfolk Southern: 'No major

issues with the bridge'

During an inquiry earlier this year by the Cleveland Daily Banner regarding the structural condition of the concrete ballast deck structure, Norfolk Southern officials said the bridge's last annual inspection took place on Dec. 6, 2018.

No "major issues with the bridge" were found.

However, Norfolk Southern does conduct an inspection after each truck-related accident.

In a July 23 email, a company official told the Banner there are no plans to replace the structure.

"Norfolk Southern is in full compliance with the Federal Railroad Administration's bridge safety standards, often exceeding requirements," the email from Norfolk Southern's media relations staff stated. "Norfolk Southern inspects all railroad bridges annually. If a truck strikes a bridge, NS also conducts an immediate bridge inspection following the incident."

The presence of damaged concrete was also addressed.

"Recent bridge strikes to Inman Street Bridge have chipped concrete from the lower outer edge of the exterior span; however, the minimal impact has not affected the structural integrity of the bridge," the email stated. "Based on the current condition of the bridge, Norfolk Southern has determined that the bridge is safe for existing operations and does not plan to replace the bridge at this time."

CPD Public Information Officer [Sgt. Evie] West said accidents involving trucks crashing into the bridge can happen twice during a week. She said she was unaware of any plans to place additional warning signs, adding drivers should be aware of their surroundings.

"It's part of being a responsible driver," West said.

Mayor: 'Finger pointing

is not the answer'

Brooks said the city is working on a solution to the problem, which it will implement.

“We have a sign-alert problem,” he said. “We know the bridge is too low.”

He said the issue regarding who is responsible for coming up with a solution to prevent additional bridge strikes is a “secondary problem.”

“The most important thing for me is to keep our city safe,” he said.

Fivas also said a solution is in the works.

“We have a plan we will be rolling out soon,” he said. “We are working on it internally.”

He said the plan will include additional signage that drivers will be more likely to notice and that additional details about the plan will be announced soon.


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