Political Notebook: Elkridge residents fight against big political odds

State and CSX

May 06, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Fighting City Hall is never easy, but Elkridge residents are getting high marks for their quick ability to organize to try to fend off a possible site for a major rail cargo transfer facility in their community.

There is a lot at stake on both sides in a decision that puts a community's view of its future welfare in the context of a major economic project, backed by the O'Malley administration and CSX railroad, that could determine the future of Maryland's chief port.

The widening of the Panama Canal will allow ever-larger container ships from Asia to reach the East Coast, and officials with the port of Baltimore want to be able to cash in. To do that, CSX must be able to double-stack 40-foot-long steel cargo containers on rail cars headed to the Midwest, but Baltimore's antiquated Howard Street Tunnel isn't big enough to accommodate such traffic.

That's the background for a plan to build a $150 million transfer station south of the tunnel that would allow containers brought from the port either by rail or truck to be lifted and stacked two-high by huge magnetic cranes. The site must be rectangular, at least 70 acres, and have highway access. Four locations are being considered

Although the outcome for Elkridge is far from clear, the Greater Elkridge Community Association's campaign to rally both the community and elected officials to their side could serve as a model for what an organized group of residents can do in two months, even against big corporate money and politically powerful opponents.

"I just know if enough people get together, you can move some of these things," said Howard Johnson, the association's president. "This is just wrong" from the community's perspective, he said, because of the potential for 24-hour-a-day noise, lights, idling diesel engines and hundreds of big trucks rumbling between Route 100 and the site.

Johnson said he quickly reached out to people beyond his group who live near the proposed site, along the main Camden rail line at Hanover and Race roads, once he heard about the project from Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who works closely with his group.

Other potential sites include one next to the tracks north of Montevideo Road, also in Howard; one next to a state prison in Jessup, Anne Arundel County; and one between a business park and federally owned Department of Agriculture land in Beltsville, in Prince George's County. Watson quickly got county planners to determine that there are 365 homes sit within a quarter-mile of the Elkridge site, compared with 21 near the other Howard site and none near the Arundel site. A number of townhouses are near the Beltsville site, but Elkridge's reaction has by far been the largest and the loudest.

Johnson quickly arranged for someone to testify at a school board meeting on the facility's implications for plans to build a new elementary school on nearby Coca Cola Drive, and set up a committee of about a dozen people who did research, even traveling to Pennsylvania to record noise levels and video of a similar facility. Others created a Facebook page on the project, created protest signs and T-shirts, and sent out mass email to rally residents and local politicians for several well-attended community meetings. The school board has put off any decision on a badly needed new building until at least June, when the CSX list of sites might drop from four to two, state officials said.

Since Johnson first heard about the project in late February, his association has organized a vigorous campaign to knock their community off the state's list.

"They've clearly been effective in demonstrating their concerns to the public," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. Ulman has said he backs the project but opposes any location that will hurt an existing community and believes, as does Del. James E. Malone Jr., that it will never be built in Elkridge because of the strong local opposition.

In one way, the Elkridge campaign is easier than others because no one is out to kill what all acknowledge is a good project that will benefit the region, but Johnson pointed out that with the economic stakes so high, Elkridge residents could get short shrift.

"They don't care about your homes. They don't care about your neighborhood," he said of railroad and state officials.

Elkridge residents merely want to persuade state officials to drop their community from the list of potential sites along the main Camden line. At the same time, because of the potential regional impact, Gov. Martin O'Malley and CSX officials have refused to alter the 9- to 12-month federal evaluation process involving all four sites. Observers are impressed, however, with the community's effort.

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