CSX Corp. has terminated agreements to purchase land from property owners along Race and Hanover roads in Elkridge, all but eliminating the possibility of the company locating its proposed intermodal facility there.
"Although none of the candidate sites identified previously by the State of Maryland and CSX have been formally removed from the environmental review process, CSX has made a business decision to release its existing contingent purchase agreements with property owners at the Race and Hanover Road site," CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan wrote in an e-mailed statement June 5, responding to an inquiry from the Howard County Times.
The news was greeted with cautious relief by Elkridge residents and officials, who had argued the site was inappropriate because of its proximity to hundreds of residents, a planned new housing development and a proposed middle school.
"I view it as a positive sign that CSX may have another site under serious consideration," said County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Elkridge.
Though CSX has not officially ruled out the Elkridge site, Watson said this announcement "is good news for the people of Hanover and Elkridge."
CSX is partnering with the Maryland Department of Transportation to find a site south of the narrow Howard Street Tunnel where containers of cargo can be trucked in from the Port of Baltimore and double-stacked on trains for transport throughout the country.
The Howard Street Tunnel has created a choke point for double stacking containers, a common practice in the freight shipping industry that officials say has to be available for the Port of Baltimore to remain relevant, especially with the widening of the Panama Canal nearing completion.
But the proposed intermodal facility has been a subject of controversy in Howard County, which is home to two of the four proposed sites — the Elkridge site and a site in Jessup, near Montevideo Road.
The other two sites under consideration are located in Arundel County, just over the Howard border near the Jessup Correctional Facility, and in Prince George's County.
Since the four proposed sites were identified in March 2011, they have been going through a federal process, outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act, that involves assessing each site for environmental, economic, archaeological and other issues.
CSX and MDOT previously said they expected the NEPA process to take about a year. But a year has come and gone and officials still are looking for answers.
Greater Elkridge Community Association President Howard Johnson said the group's lobbying has made CSX aware that the facility should not be located in a residential area.
There are roughly 340 homes within a quarter-mile, and about 750 within a half-mile of the Elkridge site, Johnson said. The school system is also planning to build a middle school near the proposed site.
CSX's announcement, Johnson said "is a very good move in the right direction for us, but we're going to stay on top of it and stay as active as we possibly can to ensure that it doesn't end up in Elkridge."
Johnson added: "Until it's actually going somewhere else, I don't think we can do a whole lot of cheering."
County Executive Ken Ulman will also be treading with caution until a final decision on a site is made, according to a statement.
"While this development is good news for neighbors of Race Road in Elkridge, no final location decisions have been made. I will keep doing what I can to make sure any intermodal cargo container facility is located in an area where impact on neighborhoods is minimized, and where it makes good business sense for the Port of Baltimore, for CSX and for the Maryland economy," Ulman said in the statement.
State Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat who represents Elkridge, said he sees CSX's announcement as an indication the Elkridge site is no longer being considered as a serious option.
"I think it's obviously a great relief for the citizens and community of Elkridge," he said.
Because he considers the Elkridge site is "inappropriate," Kasemeyer said he put language in the state budget to withhold state funding for the project until further study of the sites.
Kasemeyer said he doesn't know why CSX officials changed their minds, but he noted: "I'm sure they knew that those of us in the legislature would do every method to delay it."
"We'll be following (the process) and making sure it doesn't come to Elkridge," Kasemeyer said of himself and his fellow District 12 lawmakers. But given the state's desire for the facility, he said they will be cooperative in helping the project stay on track at some other location.
Kasemeyer said CSX may be looking at placing the facility in Baltimore. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a letter April 26 to CSX CEO Michael Ward, urging him to consider Baltimore as the location of the intermodal facility.
CSX has not issued any public statements regarding whether it would consider locating the intermodal facility in Baltimore.