Incident could boost bill on risky materials

October 19, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

The closing of the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels yesterday could refocus attention on a controversial proposal to impose a citywide ban on the transport of hazardous materials that could spill in an accident or be used in a terrorist attack.

The measure, which has stalled for months because of fundamental questions about its constitutionality, is expected to receive a hearing today by a City Council committee and could come up for a vote this month, said its sponsor, Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

"Everybody's got to step up and really consider moving forward to make sure we protect the citizens of the city and of this country," Harris said.

The hearing was scheduled weeks ago, but Harris said yesterday's threat that someone was planning to blow up one of two Harbor tunnels underscored the city's vulnerability to terrorists attacking transportation routes.

Introduced in February, the proposal would ban trucks and trains from passing through Baltimore with hazardous chemicals. Trucks are prohibited from carrying the materials through the city's tunnels, but trains are not. Yesterday's threat closed the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel for two hours and closed the Fort McHenry Tunnel for about an hour.

The proposed bill was originally viewed as a response to the July 2001 CSX freight train derailment in the Howard Street Tunnel. The train, which was carrying hazardous materials, caught fire and tied up downtown for days.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, said yesterday's scare emphasizes the need at least to hold a hearing on the measure. The bill has been assigned to his committee.

"It needs to be on the radar screen," Reisinger said. "With or without what happened today, the bill is relevant. It is a concern and an issue."

The idea has faced increased scrutiny since CSX Transportation, a leading commercial rail provider, sued Washington over a similar ban approved by the City Council there. The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the ban in May as unconstitutional.

Officials in Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, which has not taken a position on the bill, said they are monitoring the legislation as well as the pending Washington suit.

Baltimore's proposal had been scheduled for a hearing last month but was pulled off the agenda at the last minute because, Reisinger said at the time, city agencies had not had a chance to review its specifics.

Other officials, including Harris, argued that transportation lobbyists are working behind the scenes of the council to kill the measure.

Though the hearing is scheduled for today, a vote is not likely until the bill can be studied further, council members said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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