CLEVELAND (WJW) – The FOX 8 I-Team has uncovered a showdown over delays on the water in the Flats with the US Coast Guard taking action that could lead to very big fines.

At the heart of it, a railroad bridge often blocking pleasure boats and huge freighters.

A Norfolk Southern rail bridge crosses the Cuyahoga River right where it meets Lake Erie.

The Coast Guard and others describe a chronic problem that has gone on for years, and now the Coast Guard is making a new push for change. That could include significant fines for delays in lifting the bridge.

Eric Peace, VP of the Lake Carriers Association, spoke out. The Association is a trade group for the shipping industry.

Peace said, “They open when they feel like they want to…not by the law which is a requirement when a signal is sounded by a vessel coming through.”

He argues waiting for the bridge can hold up local industries and cause more than an inconvenience for a freighter.

Pease added, “You bring a 700-foot ship, and you put them inside this break wall, they have to be able to hold position if they can’t get through that bridge. You actually have to tread water. It becomes a safety problem.”

Blair Stanifer oversees Coast Guard enforcement surrounding bridges throughout the Great Lakes.

He said, “We’ve seen some delays. Two hours, 3 hours. We average about a hundred cases a year for penalties.”

Stanifer says, if a train isn’t coming close to going over the bridge, then the bridge must go up for boats and ships.

He added, “Once you make a request, provided it’s safe to do so, the bridge is supposed to open promptly and fully.

The rail company could face fines of more than $30,000 for each complaint.

The Coast Guard records show dozens of complaints for just this year. But all of these kinds of cases get decided by a hearing officer in Washington. And they can take years to go through the system.

In fact, the 2019 cases were dismissed, although the Coast Guard says those could be refiled.

The Coast Guard also says many other cases have not yet been filed in Washington.

Norfolk Southern issued a statement that said, “Norfolk Southern is proud to move the U.S. economy on our premium corridor which traverses Cleveland, often carrying as many as 100 trains a day on this route, including freight and Amtrak passenger trains. We continue to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and local officials to address the challenge of keeping both rail and marine traffic moving, and our priority is to balance the needs of boaters and our nation’s supply chain while following the law.”
Still, the Lake Carriers Association has lost patience.

Eric Peace said, “I think the only way to get them to change their act is to continue to raise the fines.”

Private boaters and shipping companies can file complaints with the Coast Guard about delays caused by the bridge.