While this week's decision to abandon the proposed $95 million intermodal rail facility at the Mount Clare yard in Southwest Baltimore may be regarded as a big victory for neighbors in Morrell Park and elsewhere who strongly opposed it, the decision is a genuine setback for efforts to expand business at the Port of Baltimore. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in recent years to make the port more competitive and reduce shipping costs; the loss of the planned intermodal facility is likely to have the opposite effect.
The challenge facing the port is well documented. The Howard Street tunnel remains a major bottleneck for CSX Transportation and efforts to move shipping containers out of the Seagirt Terminal. What CSX sought — and the Maryland Department of Transportation had previously been willing to help finance to the tune of $30 million — was essentially a transfer station to bypass the tunnel where workers would take containers brought by train from Seagirt and then double-stack them on trains unimpeded by the tunnel.
This was regarded as more essential now than ever because of the significant sum Ports America has invested at Seagirt to develop a deep-water berth and accommodate bigger ships made possible by the widening of the Panama Canal. Those ships may yet arrive within two years as the canal project is completed, but the fear is that the containers they bring will either be delayed at the port or leave by truck, which is generally more costly than rail.
Morrell Park residents feared their neighborhood would be inundated by tractor-trailers hauling away containers from the yard as well as by the stacking of cargo on trains at all hours of the day and night. The resulting noise, diesel fumes and traffic congestion held little appeal and one can hardly blame residents for expressing reservations. But the loss of the facility is likely to cost Baltimore economically and that deserved to be heavily weighed in the decision as well. Was it? The evidence is a bit mixed.
Perhaps that lack of enthusiasm was because Mount Clare was never anyone's first choice. Indeed, it was not even in the "final four" in the selection process. At 70 acres (about half the size of what was desired) and two miles away from I-95, it was too small and too residential. The preferred choice was in Elkridge, but Howard Countians living near that location were so strongly opposed that officials abandoned it years ago.
State officials blame CSX for not doing enough to win over opponents. But elected officials weren't exactly out there selling it either with the possible exception of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an early and unconditional supporter of the project. Still, the fact that a rail yard was judged unacceptable for use as a rail yard in a city with a both a proud history of freight rail transportation and a chronically high unemployment rate is a bit discouraging, particularly if Baltimore intends to pursue much-needed manufacturing and industrial developments in the future.
Make no mistake, port jobs are valuable. According to one report, CSX pays its workers an average $94,000 in wages and benefits annually. The port generates an estimated $5.6 billion in total economic activity and its ability to accommodate bigger ships offers a huge advantage in the highly-competitive shipping business — as does its proximity to Mid-Atlantic markets.
This isn't necessarily the end of the world, of course. CSX and Ports America are already working on a project to improve rail-loading efficiency at Seagirt to lower costs, and state officials are pursuing a long-term plan to renovate Amtrak's Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel which could relieve rail congestion if it's made large enough to handle double-stacked containers — albeit not for 10 or 15 years at the earliest. Port officials are also looking into other ways to eke out greater efficiencies and perhaps offer incentive payments to shippers that might offset higher rail charges.
Nevertheless, CSX officials touted the intermodal facility as potentially increasing their capacity by 30 percent. That's a lot of business to put at risk. When it's time to gauge Maryland's "business climate," the failure of what might have been a fruitful public-private partnership ought to be considered. Are we serious about attracting high-paying jobs to Baltimore or only jobs that don't involve trucks or cranes? Those who claim to support the port and the estimated 50,000 jobs it generates clearly fell short on this particular venture.
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