Virulent opposition among West Baltimore residents to a proposed CSX Transportation cargo facility in their neighborhood has raised more questions about the viability of the long-studied project.
It also has disrupted key conversations on growth at the port of Baltimore and become a political football that local elected officials are finding difficult to handle.
While Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake touted the project as a critical infrastructure investment ahead of next year's opening of an expanded Panama Canal, she's also begun hedging her support with more promises that residents won't be steamrolled in the process.
"I have no interest in shoving an intermodal facility down the throats of, forcing the issue in, Morrell Park," the mayor said last week.
"Everything is on the table" in terms of location, she said, even though CSX and the state already have spent considerable resources planning the facility at Morrell Park.
The mayor's new stance moves her more toward several members of the City Council who have threatened to block the project over what they call its threat to neighbors.
The proposed facility would allow CSX to load and unload cargo containers stacked two-high on its trains for more efficient and cost-effective shipments. The company cannot double-stack south- and westbound trains out of its existing intermodal facility at the Seagirt Marine Terminal because they will not fit through the Howard Street Tunnel.
Residents fear the facility, and the hundreds of trucks that will serve it each day, will decrease home values and cause spikes in air, noise and light pollution.
Kevin Harris, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman, said in an email that the mayor always has been "clear in saying that the concerns of residents must be adequately addressed," and will continue to work with residents to make sure that is the case.
"The Mayor's point is that she understands the importance of keeping the port competitive and will advocate for that so long as it's done with the support of the community," Harris said. "Location choice and getting community support comes down to the State and CSX addressing those concerns."
Harris said he didn't know of any alternate locations being discussed.
Melanie Cost, a spokeswoman for Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX, said in a statement that the company is "still in talks with our public partners to look at the ways to balance community concerns with the needs of the Port, the city, state of Maryland and CSX."
Two CSX officials leading the project did not respond to requests for comment.
Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, said the project will help bring "good-paying, family-supporting, blue-collar jobs" to the port, and the MPA has been "strongly encouraging CSX since the beginning to certainly engage, meet with [and] listen to" community members.
Residents and local business leaders in Morrell Park say they take little comfort in the assurances that their concerns will be met.
Paul DeNoble, a member of the Morrell Park Community Association, criticized Rawlings-Blake's recent trade mission to Panama with Vice President Joe Biden to tout the port and the CSX facility.
"A lot of people are saying, 'You're going to go all the way to Panama, but you're not going to come to Morrell Park?'" DeNoble said of the mayor's failure to meet with residents directly.
Kathryn Holmes, vice president of K&W Finishing on Bernard Drive and president of the Crossroads Business Park Association, which represents several businesses near the proposed facility site, said the lack of communication from the city and CSX has been frustrating.
"We don't even have anybody to call or talk to, or a point person that's in town that we can work with," Holmes said. "It's like CSX has retreated back to Jacksonville and they're hiding out, regrouping, I guess."
During the Panama trip, Biden touted the CSX intermodal facility as necessary for Baltimore to compete after the Panama Canal expansion allows larger ships and more cargo to flow from Asia to the East Coast.
"You've got the cranes. You've got the widened docks. The last piece to put in place is the intermodal facility," Biden said.
The standoff continues what has been a high-tension few months in Morrell Park, from a rowdy community meeting in September to City Councilman Edward Reisinger, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other council members dropping their support for the project in October.
"It seems they have no consideration whatsoever for Morrell Park, because we're not hearing anything," Reisinger said. "Not from CSX, the governor's office, MDOT [Maryland Department of Transportation], the mayor's office, nothing."
In part to try to get more answers, the community is hosting another meeting on Dec. 16 at 6 p.m. at the local American Legion, at 1508 Desoto Road.
Residents said they hope Rawlings-Blake attends. They've even invited Biden.