City and state officials are re-evaluating their approach to a proposed railroad cargo facility in Southwest Baltimore, acknowledging that their initial response to community concerns fell flat.
The public backlash stalled the CSX Corp. project, which is nearly a year behind schedule, and created tension among local officials, who are collaborating on bringing a project considered critical to the port of Baltimore to fruition, according to interviews and internal email.
"It's a difficult project. We're trying to [be] responsible and creative in trying to balance a whole host of issues. It's hard," said Leif Dormsjo, the state's deputy transportation secretary for planning and project management, in an interview. "If it was easy, we'd be developing the project right now."
Officials want to build the facility at the Mount Clare rail yard in Morrell Park. CSX would load shipping containers two high on trains there for more efficient "double-stack" shipment in and out of the port to points west and south. Height restrictions in the Howard Street Tunnel prevent double-stacking from the port's container terminals.
Morrell Park residents worry that the facility and the estimated 150 tractor-trailers that would enter and exit each day would drive down home values and diminish quality of life in the neighborhood. They've swayed several members of the City Council and petitioned legislators in Annapolis to block the project.
Area businesses also have spoken in opposition, saying the increased truck traffic could disrupt their operations, while officials at nearby St. Agnes Hospital have said the cargo facility and its truck traffic would "put an additional health burden on a community already at risk."
State and city officials have been scrambling to address the community's concerns as they look to bring the project online by 2015, when an expanded Panama Canal is expected to open and increase the volume of containers shipped to the East Coast.
Dormsjo and Kaliope Parthemos, deputy chief of the mayor's office of economic and community development, spoke about behind-the-scenes communications on the project between state and city officials after The Baltimore Sun obtained a series of emails among them.
The emails, obtained through two Public Information Act requests, outline months of project planning between officials. The city and the state redacted information or withheld some emails entirely, citing an exemption for pre-decision deliberations among officials.
A few of the emails revealed tension between officials, which they said was based on different perceptions of each agency's role in community outreach.
In early December, Parthemos wrote to Dormsjo to say she was "very disappointed" in comments he'd made about the project to her deputy director, Colin Tarbert.
"The City and Mayor have done a lot for this project and the reason we are where we are is not due to City efforts," Parthemos wrote.
Dormsjo said in an interview that he had told Tarbert that the state needed more help from city officials to address public concerns about the project.
"You try to do things jointly, you try to get everybody on the same page," he said. At the same time, everyone involved in the project has "different responsibilities and different perceptions of the level of effort of any party at any given time."
Parthemos got rightfully defensive about his comments, Dormsjo said. "There are no fingers to point. We're all, at the end of the day, in this together."
In an interview, Parthemos said she didn't remember the specific reason she was disappointed when she wrote the email. "I'm sure I've been disappointed with a thousand things," she said.
She recalled feeling disappointment at the time with how CSX officials had handled a town hall-style meeting with residents months before, when railroad executives were shouted down by rowdy residents.
"I just don't think that we, collectively, and CSX did a very good job at that meeting," Parthemos said.
After the meeting, Parthemos said she reiterated to Dormsjo and other city officials that "they needed to be a bigger part of the project" and take over for CSX as the point of contact for concerned city residents.
"We just wanted to make sure that [the Maryland Department of Transportation] understood that as a state project, that they were to take the lead as opposed to CSX taking the lead, and they needed to work with the community," Parthemos said.
The emails, from October through early February, show that officials met regularly about the project even as they said little publicly about it.
Dormsjo said part of the "radio silence" from state officials was a result of their pausing to consider a major change in the plans.
Late last year, facing increased opposition to the project, Dormsjo said, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Councilman Edward Reisinger "came back to the state and said, 'Help. Help work this out,'" asking for an "operational solution" to some of the residents' concerns, which focused on the more than 300 truck trips expected to be made through their neighborhood daily.
Officials began researching whether the yard could be used solely by trains, with single-stacked trains entering and double-stacked trains leaving, but CSX deemed the plan unworkable, Dormsjo said.
Parthemos said officials are looking for alternate solutions, but that no other sites in the city are being considered.
"We really haven't had much to go back to the community with," Parthemos said.
According to the "Interim Project Agreement" signed by state and CSX officials in September 2012, the first phase of the project — including environmental studies and permitting — was targeted for completion in April 2013. The third phase, including construction, was targeted for May 2015.
Opponents of the project say the state has conducted no environmental studies, and have pushed legislators to make such studies a condition for using a $20 million appropriation for the project in the pending state budget.
Asked repeatedly for comment, CSX officials issued statements saying they are communicating with state and city partners to find solutions to community concerns. They declined to elaborate.
Even the state has struggled to get information from the railroad.
"CSX doesn't share information with us very easily and they don't approve of independent analysis of any of their projects," Dormsjo wrote in email response to a partner company that offered to do a cost-benefit analysis on the project. "You are right to have strong interest in freight movement. This just isn't a suitable project."
When asked about the email, Dormsjo said his "statement speaks for itself," but declined to elaborate.
Melanie Cost, a CSX spokeswoman, said in an email that the company "does not feel it appropriate to comment" on Dormsjo's emails.