Despite the industrial train tracks about 100 feet beyond her back fence, Laurie Weishorn's neat, tree-lined backyard in Southwest Baltimore can seem like an oasis of suburban quiet on a low-humidity summer afternoon.
After 22 years in Morrell Park, Weishorn has invested in her home and gotten comfortable despite the occasional rumbling of trains through the Mount Clare rail yard out back. But in recent months, she has also lived in fear that her peaceful pocket of city life will be undone by the construction of a new, large-scale cargo transfer facility in the yard.
"I think my way of life down here is going to change drastically, and I'm not too happy about it," Weishorn said. "It's heartbreaking. The reality is I'm going to have to move."
Others may follow, according to a new study by the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing. The study, set to be released Tuesday, warns that the Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal Facility planned by CSX Transportation for this low-income area could prompt residents to flee while exacerbating problems with unemployment and blight and potentially driving down housing prices. The study also warned the project could have health and environmental effects.
The $90 million intermodal project has been championed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The mayor asked CSX to consider city locations, saying the facility "will help Baltimore keep and grow jobs," even as officials in other jurisdictions where sites were considered, such as Howard County, expressed opposition.
According to the National Center for Healthy Housing study, the project could diminish the air quality in the Morrell Park neighborhood — home to residents who are disproportionately unhealthy and older compared to the city's average — and create noise and light pollution. The study's authors also questioned whether the project would provide economic benefits or jobs.
"The concern is that with this intense industrial use, that some of the problems the community is already experiencing, like crime and unemployment, will worsen," said Rebecca Morley, the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing's executive director and the study's lead author. "As this site grows, as more truck traffic is moving through the neighborhood, this is not going to be a very desirable neighborhood."
An estimated 150 tractor-trailers are expected to make about 300 trips in and out of the facility per day once it is up and running, carrying containerized cargo from the port of Baltimore to the facility, where it will be double-stacked on trains and then shipped throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
The planned facility is part of CSX's National Gateway Project to improve efficiency and increase capacity on rail lines between ports like Baltimore and inland destinations like Pittsburgh, Charlotte, N.C., and cities farther west.
The rail company and state want to increase the company's ability to move cargo out of Baltimore in part because the Panama Canal is being widened for larger ships, making international routes into Baltimore more attractive. Trains can't be double-stacked directly out of the port of Baltimore because the century-old Howard Street Tunnel is too low for double-stacked trains to pass through.
In a statement, CSX said it has modified its plans in response to community input and will continue to work with residents as concerns arise. Company officials also plan to review the new health impact study.
"CSX has a solid record of contributing to communities and of developing facilities that help those communities and regions grow and prosper while encouraging the use of environmentally beneficial rail transportation for the movement of goods," the statement said.
The project has been in the works since 2009, when officials first began looking for a way to replace the current CSX train depot at Seagirt Marine Terminal, which is north of the tunnel. Multiple locations were considered in the Baltimore region before CSX focused on the Mount Clare yard last year. The company hopes to complete the facility by the spring of 2015.
Councilman Edward Reisinger, who represents Morrell Park, said much still needs to be negotiated between the city and CSX as well as the community and local businesses before the project can move forward, including establishing the best route into the site from Interstate 95.
"Nothing's carved in stone," he said. He noted that a meeting is scheduled in September for CSX officials to talk with area residents.
Still, the project is expected to be approved.
It is being paid for in part by the state, and the Maryland Department of Transportation has been a partner with CSX in the project's implementation and design. The location is just south of Interstate 95 where it crosses over Washington Boulevard, near both Morrell Park and Wilhelm Park.
Travis Tazelaar, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the approval process for the new facility is ongoing. Questions of zoning, stormwater and environmental impact, and design must still be answered, and the city welcomes the health impact study, he said.
"It will help inform this public process that is going to happen," Tazelaar said.
Morley said that was the goal of conducting the study, which her organization decided to conduct after hearing outrage among residents living near several sites that had been proposed for the facility in recent years.
The study's findings will be presented at a Morrell Park Community Association meeting Tuesday night, and Morley said the organization hopes CSX will consider its recommendations as the company moves forward with the project.
Among the recommendations: Establish a plan to deal with the large number of rats expected to be displaced from the Mount Clare yard, limit the hours of operation, and work with local schools and homeowners to mitigate environmental problems, such as increased emissions from trucks.
The group also recommends that CSX voluntarily track air pollutants, warning that the project could increase pollutant levels above those considered dangerous by the World Health Organization.
Tazelaar said project planners are already devising ways to mitigate pollution. Truck companies are being encouraged to upgrade fleets with cleaner vehicles. Electric cranes will be used at the site instead of diesel cranes. The maximum number of truck trips will be restricted, and officials are looking to minimize truck traffic on residential streets, he said.
He said more changes are being considered, including landscaping to provide a buffer from nearby homes, and others are likely to be discussed with more public input.
"We're going to encourage economic development, but we're not going to do it without the public's input or at an extreme cost to the public," he said of the project.
Air quality is particularly worrisome in Morrell Park because residents who live in many of the homes surrounding the intermodal site are already disproportionately unhealthy compared to others in the state and city, with higher death rates from heart disease and chronic lower-respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, bronchitis and asthma, the study found.
The average age of residents is higher than in some city neighborhoods, the study found, making them more susceptible to pollution.
Douglas Sanders, who turns 75 this week, lives on Harman Avenue in a small home that backs up to the train tracks. Inside, his walls are lined with carpet to keep out the noise, but he's used to the clattering of the trains anyway, he said.
"I come from the old school in West Virginia. You really don't care as long as nobody comes on your property," he said of the rail yard behind him.
He shrugged at warnings of potential health impacts, noting he's survived a triple-bypass surgery and several other ailments over the years, including having twice been shot.
His neighbor John Stinchcomb, 72, also said he doesn't mind the noise. He spent 32 years living in a home that backed up to train tracks in Pigtown and has been in his home that backs up to the tracks in Morrell Park for 12, he said.
"It don't bother me," he said. "We kind of like sitting watching" the trains pass by, he said.
Still, other residents, like Weishorn, fear the intermodal facility will make their neighborhood unbearable. She loves her home and how quickly she can zip down Washington Boulevard to her work in Harbor East, she said, but she doesn't feel that her concerns are being addressed.
"While this isn't a palace to some people, it is my palace, and I have a lot of concerns," Weishorn said of her home. "I know this neighborhood isn't, you know, Howard County, with $500,000 houses, but it's a community."