Track Sale To State Derailed

B & A

Attorney Accuses Mta Of Reneging On Deal

Delays In Light Rail Seen

March 12, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad's attorney accused state officials of "reneging" on repeated "agreements in principle" on the price for 5 miles of track needed for Maryland's light-rail line.

James H. Burnley, the Washington attorney representing the Ferndale-based company, blamed Mass Transit Administration officials for the deadlock that has prompted the state to begin steps aimed at condemning the B & A track.

Barring agreement, condemnation proceedings -- before the Interstate Commerce Commission, then Maryland's court system -- could delay by more than a year the light-rail southern spur's scheduled May 1992opening, both sides agreed.

Burnley, in a telephone interview Sunday, said the state and B & A had settled on a price that held firm in negotiations from last November through January.

During that time, as the two sides negotiated liability clauses and other non-monetary issues, state officials told B & A they planned to seek Board of Public Works approval for four separate drafts of the agreement, Burnley said.

But he said the MTA never presented the agreement to the board, and the agreement carries no legal weight without board approval.

"It's quite remarkable to us that after two years of hard negotiations, the state would suddenly, with no warning, reverse directions like this," Burnley said. "It's really difficult for us to deal with people who reach agreement, then don't honor their agreement."

MTA officials publicly revealed plans to seek condemnation at a hearing last week before a state Senate subcommittee, warning the negotiations snag could delay the scheduled opening of the southern spur of the $446 million Hunt Valley-to-Glen Burnie light-rail line.

Mass Transit Administration officials declined comment on the negotiations. Jackie Moore, an MTA spokeswoman, said MTA officials had begun preparing their formal case for condemning the track.

Within two to three weeks, Moore said, the MTA will request that the Interstate Commerce Commission allow the MTA to ask a court to condemn the track and set a fair market price.

"We're looking at this as just another part of the process," Moore said of the bid to seek condemnation of the B & A track, running from Glen Burnie to the Baltimore City line. "We need the property. We hope to get it through an agreement, but wemay not have a choice."

Both state and B & A officials say they are continuing negotiations this week.

Neither side would say what the state has offered or what B & A is seeking for the right of way. But one source close to the negotiations said the state had offered about $7 million for the freight-hauling railroad that owner Ken Pippin bought for less than $1 million in 1984.

To have the land condemned, the state must first argue its case -- that the B & A is under-used and needed for the greater benefit of state citizens -- before a five-member panel or a federal hearing examiner appointed by the ICC.ICC hearings also allow railroad owners to testify against condemnation.

Only after receiving ICC approval could the MTA ask a state court to set a fair market price. ICC decisions can be appealed withinthe agency or to the courts.

Dennis Watson, an ICC spokesman, called the case highly unusual. Normally, he said, railroad owners seek condemnation when rail lines fall into disuse, abandonment or heavy indebtedness.

Watson said he knew of no cases of the ICC ruling in favor of condemning a rail line still in use, against the railroad owner's wishes.

In a recent New York City case, an ICC hearing examiner ruled against a group of residents of the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea who wanted an elevated Conrail line condemned and torn down for safety and other reasons, Watson said.

Conrail, however, argued that it hoped to restore the rail line, unused for seven years, to carry garbage. The administrative law judge ruled in January that the line's "money-making potential" justified its existence, Watson said.

Burnley, who negotiated federal right-of-way purchases and served as President Ronald Reagan's Transportation Secretary for 1 1/2 years, predicted the ICC would reject the state's bid.

He said he had scrutinized ICC rulings, court cases and federal statutes and found no precedent for a government getting a working railroad condemned.

"That's what's so remarkable about state officials' saber-rattling here," Burnley said. "They're putting their own light-rail line in jeopardy. That's their call. It takes two to negotiate."

With county lawmakers, planners, residents and business owners long expecting the line to open by next spring, some supporters worried about potential delays caused by the snag.

"It'd sure be a shame if it's not around so people can take the train to the new stadium next spring, like everybody planned," said state Sen. Michael F. Wagner, a Democrat from Ferndale.

Some restaurants and taverns along the line plan tooffer specials and packages including pre-game meals and tickets to Orioles games, with extras like a brown-bag meals for the trip.

The rail line's expected arrival next spring also has provided the impetus for a Ferndale community revitalization program county planners hope to use as a model for similar efforts in Arundel.

Wagner said he hopes for a quick resolution, arguing that taxpayers would pay fordelays in legal fees and the increased costs of building the line.

But, he said, "At this point, if it goes much further than this, I think we could be facing a year's delay easily."

The remainder of the 22.5 miles of light-rail line scheduled to open next spring will be completed on schedule for its May 1992 opening, MTA officials said.

Former Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer, who was appointed state Secretary of Transportation in December, was with Gov. William Donald Schaefer in Cumberland yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

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