The century-old Spring Garden Bridge, in the shadow of Interstate 95, would be rebuilt to carry runners, bicyclists and walkers. The restored span would also complement the big new development on old industrial property at the Westport light rail station. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / June 1, 2009)

A decrepit railroad bridge in the shadow of Interstate 95 could find new life as the linchpin of a 5 1/2-mile trail encircling the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River - opening up recreational opportunities along a stretch of Baltimore waterfront that some are calling "the next Inner Harbor."

For now, the century-old CSX swing bridge carries little traffic except the occasional trespasser with a crab pot. But city officials and a prominent developer envision a restored span that would serve runners, bicyclists and folks who simply want to take a stroll along a stretch of shoreline that is being reclaimed from industrial development.

They say the bridge and trail would complement the huge new residential, office, retail and hotel development taking shape near the light rail station at Westport. The Dixon administration is asking the state's congressional delegation to secure $5 million for the work in the multiyear federal transportation bill up for renewal this year.

In an interview this week, Mayor Sheila Dixon - an enthusiastic bicyclist - said the refurbished bridge would further her administration's aim of creating a "cleaner, greener, healthier, safer" Baltimore.

"It's going to enhance the Middle Branch," she said. "All of it has something to do with a bigger plan."

The proposed trail would cross the Middle Branch using the bridge between Westport and Swann Park in South Baltimore and recross the water using the sidewalk of the Hanover Street Bridge, before curling through Middle Branch Park on the way to the Turner Development Group's Westport Waterfront development. Along the way it would feed into the existing 15-mile Gwynns Falls Trail.

If another $12 million city request were approved, it could also tie in to an extension of the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail.

Developer Pat Turner, who expects to break ground on the now-cleared 50-acre Westport site later this year, envisions the old bridge as a "lateral park" with a central promenade where the swinging portion of the span once turned to allow boats to pass. Silt deposits have since rendered that part of the Middle Branch unnavigable.

"People can actually get married in the middle of the Middle Branch," he said, projecting into the future during a recent tour of the site. "That's just a cool bridge."

Dixon warned that the city is unlikely to restore the bridge without federal funding. Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, has included the project in the list of earmarks he is seeking.

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation, said federal funds alone won't restore the bridge.

"We would expect for the proponents of the project to pay a significant role in funding the project," he said. "In order to move forward, it's going to have to be a public-private partnership."

Turner said his company sees the project as a partnership, too. He said Turner Development Group has already kicked in $20,000 to $25,000 for an engineering study of the bridge and a like amount for a preliminary design.

Historical records show the span, originally known as the Spring Garden Bridge, received construction approval from the Corps of Engineers in 1903 as part of the Western Maryland Railroad. The bridge is now owned by CSX, but the nonprofit Trust for Public Land has negotiated a purchase agreement, according to Kendrick.

He added that besides tying in with the Westport development, the bridge and trail would provide an amenity for future waterfront development in the west Port Covington area.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said the railroad supports the concept.

"Certainly we're supportive of rails-to-trails projects as a way to keep these corridors intact," he said. "It will be good to see it be part of this project."

Turner noted that the bridge is relatively wide, having been built to carry two trains.

The Westport Waterfront project, just south of the bridge's western end, will include condos, townhouses and a hotel in addition to shops and restaurants. According to Turner, the current Westport light rail station will be rebuilt to let out directly into the new development.

The trail would run along the waterfront in front of the Westport project. Turner said he expects the development to include bicycle and kayak rental facilities.

Bill Eberhart, chairman of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council, said the bridge and Middle Branch trail would be a welcome complement to the existing, more linear trail system.

"People always like loops," he said. "You don't have to double back. You can start at Point A and go back to Point A."

Eberhart said that converting the unused bridge to hiker-biker use would not be an easy task.

The span still has railroad tracks on it and is not safe to walk on, he said. "It's not a simple project, which is why it's probably somewhat expensive to do."