By Ariele Vaccaro
It might seem that the only thing new about the bridge running through Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward is its name, “Rusty”.
It was old Rusty’s birthday last week Tuesday.
The bridge has been holding up the weight of trains — some almost 100 cars long — for 99 years.
One group, Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS), recently named it and took a creative approach to spreading awareness of its age and condition.
Amidst an increase in tankers carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation through Wisconsin cities, citizens are taking it upon themselves to ensure their communities’ safety. CARS is one of them.
The group began a birthday party for Rusty with a staged conversation between a conductor and the bridge.
“I’m thinking of hanging up my tracks,” a voice bellowed from a speaker set beside the bridge.
The conductor, played by Melissa Kingston, asked Rusty why he was considering retirement. Rusty responded dejectedly that he wanted to quit the business, but his owners likely would use him until he broke down.
Rusty’s owners? Canadian Pacific Railway Limited. The company has been under fire since withholding the results of a May inspection of the bridge’s condition.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) has since requested that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) conduct its own inspection.
Her request appeared to spark action. According to a statement by Baldwin, the FRA began to audit Canadian Pacific’s reports.
“I am pleased to learn that Canadian Pacific is moving to address the concerns of Milwaukee City officials and concerned citizens by announcing plans to improve the structural integrity of this bridge,” wrote Baldwin.
In fact, the company plans to bolster Rusty’s columns with concrete in September
During a Common Council hearing in April, Canadian Pacific Director of State and Local Government Affairs Herb Jones assured that the company has no interest in skirting maintenance costs.
“It just simply wouldn’t serve our purpose in this day-in-age to behave in an unsafe way,” said Jones. “It’s in our interest to be safe.”
Brian Chui, a software engineer and member of CARS, attended Rusty’s birthday party.
His apartment building is no more than a few steps away from old Rusty.
Chui worries that, if the bridge gave way, he would have only a few minutes to escape the blast zone of half a mile. Sooner than later, he wants to see the bridge either completely rebuilt or heavily refurbished.
Some, like Eric Hansen of CARS, believe that derailment of a single, very long train could result in incredible damage.
“We’ve got unknown horrors,” said Hansen. His wife, Ann, passes Rusty a number of times per week.
At the birthday party, children took turns hitting a piñata.
Despite the rain, people hung around First and Oregon Streets to enjoy a cake shaped like Rusty.
Meanwhile, train cars barreled across the bridge as they would any other time.
Rusty would have to stand for another day.