Telescoping height stick in hand, Jeff Cook looked up Sunday at the underbelly of South Main Street’s railroad bridge.
“You can see all the marks where they’ve been hitting on this side, but they (haven’t) been hitting on that side,” he said, pointing to the southern lip of the overpass.
He was talking about trucks — it’s become common for box truck drivers to misjudge the height of the railroad tracks and get wedged underneath.
A sign between the Norfolk & Southern crossing and Amherst city hall marks the bridge height at 12 feet 7 inches. Actual measurements vary.
The I-beams sit as high as 13 feet 8 1/2 inches on one side, but sag to the advertised 12 feet 7 inches in the center on the south side of the overpass, according to Cook’s measurements.
But even though properly marked, a truck hits one of Amherst’s bridges at least once a month, according to fire chief Jim Wilhelm.
Jim Polaczynski, who runs the Amherst, Ohio Public Forum page on Facebook, knows what comes next. A truck-versus-bridge crash always sparks a post that draws a legion of angry commenters.
That’s why he and forum members Cook and John Sirb went out Sunday with cameras to record the measurements.
“We wanted to see whether the height that was listed was the accurate height. Because that could be one reason people are getting stuck,” Polaczynski said.
The South Main Street bridge sits exactly as high as posted. A block away, a sign shows the Church Street railway overpass at 11 feet 7 inches.
It’s actually 11 feet 8 inches high at its lowest point, which is the middle of the south side. On the north edge, it sits as high as 12 feet 6 inches but sags 4 1/2 inches in the center.
And as Cook measured, the Church Street bridge dropped a little as a train passed overhead.
He did not measure all the city’s railway bridges. According to Wilhelm, the West Street bridge is 13 feet high; Milan Avenue sits at 12 feet 10 inches; and North Lake Street is 13 feet 6 inches.
That makes Church Street’s clearance the lowest. It used to be even worse at 11 feet even, until in 2002 the street was lowered to relieve problems, the fire chief said.
Are truck drivers to blame? Polaczynski says they are, and his Facebook group members are quick to make the same assertion.
But he also said signage could be better. For example, the view of a sign announcing the 12-foot 7-inch clearance at South Main Street is obscured by a hanging planter.
Some facts to consider: The bridges are not the property of, nor are they maintained by the city. They are the property of Norfolk & Southern, and Amherst’s government can’t so much as splash a new coat of paint on the overpasses without express permission.
The city is responsible, however, for free-standing signs. It can’t paint bridge heights directly on the bridges.
The state of the bridges has raised concerns in the past. To the west of city hall, the Milan Avenue overpass drew criticism during the tenure of mayor David Taylor due to falling debris and rusted-through beams; the crumbling North Lake Street bridge actually prompted repairs by the railway company.
Milan, South Main, and Church bridges have all seen their unfair share of truck collisions in the past few years.
To put the heights in context, a 22-foot U-Haul moving truck is 13 feet 6 inches tall. Semis range from that height to 14 feet tall. Neither would fit under the bridges measured by Cook, Polaczynski, and Sirb.
Amherst’s fire trucks have all been specifically built to fit under the bridges, Wilhelm said. Other nearby departments that provide mutual aid to the city have larger trucks, and Amherst has special instructions on file with those firefighters for how to avoid those railroad overpasses.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.