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Cautious optimism for Flats business owners after 'Iron Curtain' conference call

Posted at 5:39 PM, Jul 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-15 18:34:24-04

CLEVELAND — After a lengthy discussion with two top executives at Norfolk Southern, employees and owners of maritime businesses located in the Flats feel more hopeful that issues surrounding the lift bridge over of the Cuyahoga River can be remedied.

Known affectionately as the Iron Curtain, the lift bridge that spans the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, officially known as NS1, has been a thorn in the side of maritime business owners and operators for months. Those problems intensified in recent weeks as the lift bridge frequently would cut off maritime traffic on the river, sometimes for hours on end. Not only has the lift bridge negatively impacted maritime businesses in the Flats, it is also creating potential safety issues, local business owners said.

Two days after News 5 reported on the issues, the vice president of corporate communications and another top official at Norfolk Southern took part in a conference call Friday afternoon with multiple business owners and operators who have been impacted by NS1.

“They listened to us. I don’t know if we’re a big enough story for them but I am hoping that they understand it,” said Laurie Dittoe, the owner of Great Lakes Watersports. “I learned a lot. I know there are some situations that they don’t really have control over. I think they could fix the situations. They just haven’t chosen to do that yet. I know now why certain things are happening.”

Dittoe’s business has been significantly impacted by the issues surrounding the lift bridge. When the bridge is in the lowered position, it effectively cuts the river in half, preventing people coming from Lake Erie to make it back to Dittoe’s dock. This situation has caused significantly delays, which tend to impact future rentals later in the day. On several occasions, Dittoe’s last rentals of the day are caught on the lake side of the bridge, delaying their arrival back to the dock by hours on end. In that time, Dittoe’s employees, who are still on the clock, can’t perform their closing duties. Some rentals have had to be canceled altogether.

In addition to the negative impact businesses, both Dittoe and Capt. Joe Slusarski of the Nautica Queen are worried about the potential safety issues the lift bridge creates when in the lowered position. On busy nights, the lowered bridge creates substantial flotillas on both sides – full of boats and vessels of all sizes. When the bridge finally lifts, many of the frustrated boaters race to get to the other side of the bridge.

“When the boats jam up at the bridge and the bridge opens they all go as fast as they can,” Dittoe said. “Everybody goes beyond the speed that they should. They break wake, which causes dangerous situations for the kayakers and other boats.”

Slusarski said that problem was plainly obvious over the weekend when he had to navigate one of the largest flotillas of the season on Saturday.

“The weekend was rough. It didn’t seem like it got any better,” Slursarski said. “On Saturday there were a lot of people down here but it would have been a little nicer if the bridge was able to go up a couple more times.”

During Friday’s conference call, Tom Werner, Norfolk Southern’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, said it is likely that the lift bridge has been lowered more often is due to rail work being done on the bridge. Additionally, a retaining wall owned by the GCRTA further down the track has necessitated a ‘slow order’ on westbound train traffic.

A GCRTA spokeswoman said the retaining wall ‘tilted’ and the RTA is in the process of stabilizing it. Details on the project are expected to be revealed at the RTA Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday morning. The board is expected to ratify a resolution to fund the project, the spokeswoman said.

Werner also vowed to report back to the group of business owners later this week with more information and, possibly, a solution.

“Werner seemed concerned, genuinely. It seems like he is trying to get to the root problems that the bridge is causing and the safety concerns,” Slusarski said. “We wanted to make sure [our message] hit home. We didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. We made sure he knew what we were talking about and we were serious about it. They need to be concerned about it just as much as we are.”

Slusarski said the problems with the lift bridge intensified once Norfolk Southern recently changed how it operated the lift bridge. Instead of allowing the bridge tender to operate the lifting and lowering of the bridge with some autonomy, the operations have instead shifted to a dispatch center in Georgia. The bridge tender now radios the dispatcher who then decides whether to raise the bridge. The added layer of bureaucracy has exacerbated the delays, Slusarski said.