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End of an era? Durham’s Can Opener bridge on Gregson Street will be raised next week

The famed Can Opener bridge over Gregson Street may be peeling the tops off fewer trucks in the future.

The street will close Wednesday for two weeks so the N.C. Railroad can elevate the bridge eight inches. When the street reopens Nov. 5, the clearance of the bridge will have been raised from 11 feet 8 inches to a more truck-friendly 12 feet 4 inches.

The N.C. Railroad, which owns the rail line, will use jacks to carefully lift the steel beams that carry the tracks over the street, then slide new plates between the beams and concrete piers, said Jim Kessler, the railroad’s vice president of engineering. At the same time, crews from Norfolk Southern, which leases the rail line, will raise the tracks on both sides of the bridge, creating a gradual eight-inch change in grade.

The whole process is scheduled to take place over an eight-hour period next Tuesday, forcing the cancellation of some mid-day Amtrak trains, Kessler said. He said he’s not worried that jacking up a 90-year-old bridge will somehow damage it.

“That’s all been looked at by the engineers,” he said. “There should be no surprises.”

The railroad bridge opened in the mid-1920s, when trucks were not so tall. It has been enforcing a height limit on Gregson Street by shearing off the tops of trucks for decades. The collisions became so common that a steel crash beam was installed in front of the bridge to take the force of the impact.

Curious about how often trucks hit the bridge outside his office in Brightleaf Square, Jürgen Henn set up cameras in 2008 to record crashes and began posting the videos on his website, 11foot8.com. The site contains videos of 147 truck-bridge collisions, the most recent on June 18 when the bucket on a tree-trimming truck got clipped.

Henn used to say that a truck hit the bridge about once a month on average. Then three years ago, the N.C. Department of Transportation installed a traffic signal at Gregson and Peabody streets, just before the bridge, that turns red when a truck that’s too high 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 warning has helped, but doesn’t prevent inattentive drivers or those racing to get through the red light from getting jolted. Henn’s website includes videos of seven bridge strikes this year.

The warning system will remain, said NCDOT spokesman Marty Homan. NCDOT will adjust the height of the laser beam and install new warning signs to reflect the new clearance of the bridge, Homan said.

While higher, a 12-foot 4-inch bridge is still relatively low. Bridges built by NCDOT today have clearances of at least 16 feet on interstate highways and 14 to 16 feet on other roads, Homan said.

Kessler said eight inches was as much as the railroad could raise the bridge without having to make expensive changes to the platforms in the Amtrak station just down the tracks.

“We’re trying to make it better,” he said. “We’re doing as much as we can on our end to get it up without it being a huge, huge project that’s disruptive for the city.”

The railroad is paying the $500,000 cost of the project. Before the road reopens in November, the steel beams of the bridge will be repainted gray and the piers a cream color, similar to what the railroad recently did with the nearby Chapel Hill Street trestle.

While truck drivers will welcome the higher bridge, some Durham residents and followers of 11foot8.com will miss the old Can Opener. When the city posted a tweet about the upcoming closure and the reason for it, many people reacted with alarm and regret.

“Gonna miss those unboxing videos,” one wrote. “I find this news to be heartbreaking,” wrote another.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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