Morrell Park residents take CSX fight to Annapolis
By By Kevin Rector and The Baltimore Sun
Mar 13, 2014 | 8:52 PM
With a few legislative victories already in hand, Laurie Weishorn will sit down before the entire Baltimore delegation in Annapolis on Friday morning and ask them to go one step further and stop CSX Corp. from building a cargo transfer facility in her back yard.
The hearing will be the biggest stage yet for the dogged objections from Weishorn and her blue-collar neighbors in Morrell Park, who say city, state and CSX rail officials underestimated their opposition to the project.
"I think they thought they were going to slip it in on us, and we've proven to them that no, that isn't going to happen," Weishorn said Thursday, amid preparations for her Annapolis testimony.
Two years after the first rumblings of the project started circulating among residents in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, the future of the Baltimore Rail Intermodal Facility appears more fraught than ever — largely because of the residents' grass roots efforts.
While it appears $20 million in state funding will remain slated for the project in the upcoming budget, Baltimore Democrat Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell has pushed through an amendment that will require an environmental study and communication between the state transportation department and Morrell Park residents before any release of the funding.
A similar amendment is being pushed in the House with the help of Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is running for governor and has taken up the cause of the Morrell Park residents.
"I support the project being built, just not here," Mizeur told a crowd of about 100 residents at a community meeting in Morrell Park on Wednesday.
The "intermodal," as it's known, would allow CSX to double-stack cargo containers from the port of Baltimore and elsewhere to more efficiently transport them throughout the eastern seaboard and Midwest — which CSX can't do from its current Seagirt Marine Terminal facility due to height restrictions at the Howard Street Tunnel.
Because of its intense industrial footprint, the project has languished for years despite state support, first being proposed at several suburban tracts before high costs and local opposition forced officials to reconsider.
Then, in April 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stepped into the fray with a letter to CSX president Michael J. Ward, inviting him to locate the facility in Baltimore.
"As a strong advocate for the Port of Baltimore, I'm deeply troubled by the slow pace of this project and the ongoing resistance to the idea of strengthening our critical port infrastructure," Rawlings-Blake wrote.
Since then, Morrell Park residents have given Rawlings-Blake a new resistance to consider.
"I'm certainly not interested in shoving anything down the community's throat that they don't want," the mayor said in November.
Rob LaPin, a Morrell Park resident who is running for a seat in the House, said city and state officials now see how wrong they were to think that the neighborhood would accept the project.
The budget amendments, as written, restrict use of the $20 million in appropriated funding until October without a signed memorandum of understanding between the state and the Morrell Park community, which LaPin said gives residents a new window of opportunity.
"We have six months now to start looking at City Hall and lobbying," he said. "We basically have six months still to fight."
Getting that six months, LaPin and others said, is the direct result of residents circulating petitions, hosting neighborhood rallies and crying foul at the potential environmental impacts the facility will have on their neighborhood.
"It's been a journey," Weishorn said at the Wednesday night meeting, at the local American Legion hall.
Back in September, at the same hall, residents nearly booed CSX officials out of the room during a presentation about the project. Those officials have all but withdrawn from the conversation since.
"We continue to communicate with our partners to find a solution that balances the community concerns with the needs of the Port, city, state and CSX," said Melanie Cost, a CSX spokeswoman, in an email Thursday.
Local City Councilman Edward Reisinger has "evolved" his position into stalwart opposition in recent months, too, thanks to residents voicing their concerns, he said.
Reisinger now says he won't introduce any of the zoning changes needed in his district for the project to move forward, though Rawlings-Blake's administration still could. Other council members, including President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, have pledged their support for Reisinger.
Weishorn and other residents are also planning a march on City Hall, but for now, their focus is Annapolis.
On Friday, Weishorn said she'll be sharing her story, but also talking about the potential impact on schools, the environment and on the way of life for all the families that live in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed site.
"It's a process, and I think it's slow, but I do think that we have made a really good effort," Weishorn said. "I think that if we continue doing what we're doing, that we can win this."