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Political opposition rises against CSX rail facility in Morrell Park

Railway TransportationPublic TransportationElectionsAmerican LegionBernard C. Young

Driven by a surge of opposition from people who live in Southwest Baltimore, several city leaders have withdrawn support for a major CSX Transportation rail facility proposed for the area.

Until recently, the project moved smoothly through early planning stages, after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake invited CSX to locate the facility — viewed as critical for the Port of Baltimore — in the city.

City Councilman Edward Reisinger, who represents the Morrell Park neighborhood where the facility is proposed to go, said his position "evolved" after CSX officials showed what he characterized as a lack of respect for the community by failing to answer questions or address concerns. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other members said they would vote with Reisinger to reject zoning changes CSX needs to move forward with the project.

"It's a trust factor with CSX," Reisinger said. "They're not complying with some of the verbal commitments they made to the residents of Morrell Park."

CSX officials declined to comment.

The $90 million terminal project would allow CSX to ship more cargo more quickly between the port and the rest of the country, officials have said. It's a priority for CSX, the port and the state as they prepare for an expected increase in cargo arriving from Asia via the Panama Canal, which is being expanded.

To be located on an existing rail yard, the terminal would be an around-the-clock operation served by about 310 trucks a day. It would allow shipping containers — the truck-sized boxes in which most consumer goods are transported internationally — to be stacked two high on trains, which is a more efficient way to move them than by truck. It would replace a rail yard at the port's Seagirt Marine Terminal, where trains can't be double-stacked because of height restrictions at the Howard Street Tunnel.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Rawlings-Blake support the project, saying it would boost the port and generate new taxes and jobs for the city. The state agreed to pick up about $32.5 million of the project's cost, citing future economic benefits.

Residents, however, have raised a slew of concerns about the project, from air, noise and light pollution to drops in home values, and local business owners say the truck traffic will disrupt their operations.

Still, Reisinger's shift and statements from others on the City Council indicating they would support him, mark the first sign of political opposition.

Reisinger said he was swayed last month during a meeting between CSX officials and about 150 residents at the local American Legion, where he felt the railroad officials avoided questions. They wanted to talk to people in "breakout sessions" rather than in front of everyone.

"It was a very poor presentation, especially the part where they didn't want to do a Q&A," Reisinger said. "I didn't appreciate that. If they're going to be a good neighbor and upfront, they should answer the questions that the residents are asking."

Rawlings-Blake, who encouraged CSX to bring the project to the city after several suburban sites were rejected, has been "monitoring this situation closely and recognizes that in order for the project to be successful, CSX must be responsive to the community's concerns," said Caron Brace, a mayoral spokeswoman.

Reisinger said he is skeptical that will happen.

"I told the mayor I cannot support this. … If they purchase any property or they need to rezone any properties, I'm not introducing any legislation," Reisinger said. "If it's the administration introducing the rezoning, they're going to have a hard time getting it passed. That's a fact, it's not a threat."

The railroad has said it needs to acquire several residential properties in the neighborhood adjacent to the existing rail yard.

Young said he would prefer to sit down with CSX, Reisinger and the community to reach a "win-win for this city" that includes building the new terminal, but that he and other council members "recognize that we can't just let people come in and run roughshod over" the people who live in Morrell Park.

"Other council people clearly understand what goes around comes around … and if they don't stand with Ed, when their turn comes around they would get the same," Young said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sits on the council's land use and transportation committee with Reisinger, said she also would stand with him.

"It would be good if CSX would try to accommodate the community's concerns and try to come up with a solution for the benefit of the city as a whole," Clarke said. "But if they cannot, we can't support them."

Residents cheered the support they have received from council members.

Larry Durkin has lived on Ottawa Avenue for nine years and said he believes the terminal will "destroy the fabric of the gritty, blue-collar neighborhood."

CSX tried to "divide and conquer and not answer any questions" at the residents' meeting, he said, adding he's glad Reisinger is calling them on it.

"I think he found religion after that American Legion meeting," Durkin said. "When you get 200 people in there and not a single one wants it, I think he finally said, 'These are my constituents.' Ed Reisinger doesn't look like a guy who wants to commit political suicide. He can count votes like anybody else."

Patti Michel, who has lived on Spence Street for 11 years, said residents have collected hundreds of signatures on a petition expressing opposition to the project.

"A project like this does not belong in a residential community, period," she said. "We're very happy that [Reisinger] is standing behind us."

Kathryn Holmes, vice president of K&W Finishing on Bernard Drive and president of the Crossroads Business Park Association, which represents several companies near the proposed terminal site, said she and her fellow business operators fear the increased truck traffic will devastate their businesses.

"I haven't heard anything from CSX or the city about what is going to be done to make it a workable situation for us," she said.

Others say they worry the project now may be in jeopardy.

Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, said in a statement port officials "continue strongly encouraging CSX to listen, be more responsive and work closely with residents to develop sensible solutions that address their concerns."

Scher said the new terminal could be a "tremendous job generator" for the city, and "it would be unfortunate if these issues could not be resolved."

Riker McKenzie, president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333, which represents port workers in Baltimore, said the union has pushed CSX to add double-stacking capability for years, but also respects local communities.

"I'd like to know what their concerns are so we can sit down and see if there is a way for us to have a win-win situation," he said.

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